Nationals' Patience Pays Little

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 13, 2008

PITTSBURGH, June 12 -- When the Washington Nationals ended the top of the first inning Thursday afternoon, the scoreboard recorded the net damages with the most familiar number of the season: zero. The five batters that inning had combined for one hit, two runners left on base and little measurable achievement.

Patience promises payoff, though, and in a quieter but fundamental way, the Nationals had used the first inning to set up their offense for the rest of the game. With patience, five batters had forced Pittsburgh starter Tom Gorzelanny to throw 34 pitches. That exhausting inning hinted that Washington would have the middle innings to feast on either a weakened starter or the underbelly of Pittsburgh's long relief.

Problem was, the Nationals lacked the means to translate that early patience into late-game payoff, losing to Pittsburgh, 7-5.

"We really let him off the hook today," center fielder Lastings Milledge said.

Most days, the Nationals are one of the more impatient teams in baseball. They entered Thursday's game ranked 25th and 26th in the two statistics that best reflect a lineup's tendency to make opposing pitchers labor: pitches faced, and pitches seen per plate appearance. Those numbers, coupled with their susceptibility to double plays -- they lead the National League -- meant that most days, pitchers such as Gorzelanny could retain their best stuff into the middle innings.

Before this game, players studied the scouting report on Pittsburgh's left-hander. Few pitchers in baseball had struggled more with control this season. His prolific ability to issue walks -- only one National League pitcher entered Thursday with more -- largely explained his 4-5 record, his 6.83 ERA and the grimacing expressions of those who watched him.

"He hasn't been pitching very well," Manager Manny Acta said. "The goal every day is to try to work the count and go against the middle relievers. Some guys you aren't able to do it because they're very aggressive in the strike zone. But with him, we just weren't able to get the big push."

In the first inning, the Nationals followed their plan to perfection. Gorzelanny escaped leadoff man Cristian Guzmán with just three pitches, but then Elijah Dukes popped up on the eighth pitch he saw. Milledge took one strike, swung at another, fouled off four pitches and looked at four balls. After three foul balls, Aaron Boone bashed a Gorzelanny change-up -- pitch No. 28 -- into center field for a single. When Ronnie Belliard struck out on a full count, the inning ended but Washington's hopes grew.

The zero belied a great inning.

"I think we did the right thing," Acta said.

Starter Jason Bergmann (1-4) mitigated some of that promise with misadventures of his own. Through 4 2/3 innings, he tried to withstand eight hits, one Belliard error and one incendiary bat of Pittsburgh catcher Ryan Doumit, who hit a towering home run -- his fourth of the series -- in the first inning.

But Pittsburgh's lead, even at 4-0 through two innings, looked tenuous. Gorzelanny's high pitch count had created that doubt.

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