Giants Lower the Broom, Complete Sweep of Nats

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 10, 2008

When one of the bleakest homestands in franchise history reached its final, decisive moment late last night, the agony again arrived, on time as always. Instead of a bases-loaded eighth-inning hit, the Washington Nationals managed a line-out to right. Instead of a win, the Nationals simply duplicated misery, which is the one thing they do best.

Because of several failures to score late, the Nationals concluded their week at Nationals Park with a 3-2 loss to the San Francisco Giants, the endpoint of a series sweep. Perhaps the Nationals aren't yet the league's worst team -- with a 25-40 record, they remain percentage points atop Colorado -- but they're likely its biggest martyr. Losers in eight of nine games, the Nationals left town in the kind of depleted state that prohibits decent baseball.

"We all need to get better," Aaron Boone said. "We've been pretty decimated, but at the same time -- me, the guys in here -- nobody cares. We've just got to go out there and perform."

This homestand, the Nationals lost almost no matter the circumstance. They lost despite early leads; they lost despite exemplary starting pitching; they even lost despite Barry Zito. They lost last night despite two San Francisco throwing errors, and despite multi-base-runner rallies in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings. In the eighth, with the bases loaded and two outs, Felipe López sizzled a Brian Wilson pitch straight to right fielder Randy Winn, who scarcely moved to catch the ball.

In four of the seven games this homestand, the Nationals scored one run or none. Dmitri Young's viral illness, compounded by injuries to five Opening Day starters, compounded by intractable slumps of those replacing them, reduced Washington's lineup to a nine-part definition for frailty.

Ryan Zimmerman spent his idle time holed up in the clubhouse, each afternoon passing as he lounged around in a sleeveless T-shirt. Sometimes, a therapeutic patch -- a Band-Aid-type figure-8 whose purpose confused even Zimmerman -- covered the base of his injured left shoulder. Yes, Zimmerman said: Not playing felt miserable.

Perhaps Zimmerman's injury doubled as the tipping point, a loss that altered the Nationals' trajectory. With their third baseman, they had survived. Without him, they nose-dived. Washington entered last night with the following June totals: a .223 batting average, a .308 slugging percentage, and just two home runs. It was the work not of a struggling offense, but a doomed one.

A few healthy veterans, once they return to the lineup, might at least enable a return to competitiveness. When team president Stan Kasten was asked yesterday why his team, as constituted, was worth watching, he mentioned both the recent past and the near future.

"Except for the last five games, we've been a .500 team for the last 40 games, a quarter of the season," he said. "You can try to figure out how. But it was that depleted talent pool that was doing it. And I think they'll be back to that, and better. Because every day we'll be adding players back in. And we are expecting promotions throughout the rest of the summer. It's clear that we're in a position where there's finally talent on the doorstep."

This homestand also tested Manager Manny Acta's stamina for patience, which at this point has revealed no breaking point. His optimism framed every defeat. After one loss, Acta explained his mind-set thusly, "I just come every day to the ballpark telling myself that today is going to be the day."

"I am patient by nature," he added yesterday. "And I know our ballclub -- it's very tough losing all the games we have lost. But it gives us an opportunity to see these younger guys. I have to be patient with these guys. Do I want to win every single day? Yes, I do. I think everybody knows that. But you need to take it as it comes for now."

Last night, it came in the familiar narrative arc. Pitching created the backbone for a winnable game. But the offense lacked the muscle to make it happen. Tyler Clippard, a 23-year-old acquired in December from the Yankees, made his Nationals debut (and just his seventh major league start). His 4 1/3 innings mixed the promising (six strikeouts) with the troubling -- three runs, and late wildness that demanded his exit.

When Clippard departed a 3-1 game, relief pitchers Brian Sanches, Jesús Colome, Charlie Manning and Luis Ayala held the Giants scoreless.

But a close game only accentuated Washington's shortcomings. In the first, both a hit and a walk were extinguished via failed stolen base attempts. Back-to-back hits in the third set the stage for an Elijah Dukes groundout. In the seventh, a López double and Wily Mo Peña single placed runners on first and third, one out. Boone pinch-hit, and one-hopped a double play to second base.

"This is our team," Acta said. "Nobody is going to feel sorry for us. We shouldn't feel sorry for ourselves."

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