Nats Left Blanked

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 14, 2008

When Washington Nationals players packed their bags yesterday, offering their thoughts on the last loss of a first half spoiled by 60 of them, the epitaphs followed one notion -- that of a season consumed by the unforeseen. Nobody envisioned the stream of injuries, the Mayo Clinic trips, the newfound familiarity with orthopedists nationwide. Said injured third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who will begin his rehab assignment today at Class A Potomac, "That wasn't even our team in the first half."

But any tale of Washington's first half must also acknowledge that the Nationals have spent a half-season wasting the unforeseen, not just suffering because of it. Indeed, the severity of Washington's downfall should not obscure the one part of the team -- the starting rotation -- that has fought against the downfall all the way, even though most, several months ago, would have never expected it.

Yesterday's 5-0 loss to the Houston Astros at Nationals Park, the endpoint of the season's first half, served as a suitable microcosm for everything that came beforehand. Odalis Pérez, signed in late February in a desperation attempt for pitching depth, managed another quality start: six innings, three runs. Still, his record plummeted to 2-7. And the starting pitchers, a group unsupported all season by offense, received another reminder that taking a loss differs distinctly from causing it.

During the team's first 96 games, Washington's rotation grew muscles. A team weakness became a strength. The Nationals enter the break with 42 quality starts -- a total the team didn't reach last year until Aug. 11 -- and four regular starters with ERAs between 3.40 and 4.01. Still, the team's starters rank last in the majors in cumulative wins (18). Pitchers spent the first half facing a daily challenge: They needed to persist, even when it didn't help the end result.

"We've been doing great," Pérez said. "Unfortunately you see only one guy who might have a winning record, but we have good ERAs. So, that's just telling you that we've been doing a great job."

But such formidability, perhaps because it comes from a rotation seen once as patchwork, has an unconvincing quality -- at least to some. Pérez yesterday didn't just escape jams, he lived in them. Five of his six innings began with base runners. In the third, he gave up a double to Houston's pitcher, Brandon Backe -- the start of an inning in which the Astros scored twice. He walked away from some innings only by finding just the right steps: a groundout, strikeout, groundout sequence in the fourth, for instance, flipped a second-and-third, no-out pickle into a scoreless inning.

Question is, will a rotation that's far exceeded expectations through 96 games continue such a performance in the second half? Even if it must carry the same weight? Two of the team's starters, Jason Bergmann, 26, and John Lannan, 23, look capable not just of maintaining their level, but improving it. After that, uncertainty interrupts. One National League scout who yesterday watched Pérez, evaluating him as a potential late-July trade piece, was asked where the left-hander would fit in a contending team's rotation.

The scout inhaled, tightening his face.

"For me, I don't think he's even in the rotation," the scout said. "You could say, yeah, maybe he's in the five hole. I guess I'd be okay with that. But if a team is looking for a tail-end starter, I wouldn't recommend that would be the guy."

When Washington begins the second half Friday in Atlanta, the team will reset its rotation. Tim Redding will start, followed, in order, by Lannan, Pérez, Bergmann and rookie Collin Balester. That Washington now considers such a rotation its most dependable asset further shows baseball as a study of surprise. When Pérez started on Opening Day, many interpreted the decision as a sign of doom.

Instead, doom blindsided the offense. For the 12th time this season, the Nationals yesterday were shut out. This time, Backe (seven innings, five hits) and Chris Sampson teamed up to facilitate Washington's struggles. Ronnie Belliard and Paul Lo Duca both grounded into double plays. The Nationals stranded three runners in the second, two more in the third, and managed just one hit in the final five innings.

"Our starting pitching, man, has been awesome all year," Lo Duca said. "I think they were under the radar. A lot of people didn't think they would be that good coming out of spring training. But our pitching staff has been great. One through five, they've kept us in almost every ballgame. We just haven't swung the bats."

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