Nats Back In Form With Loss

Brian McCann follows through with his three-run double in third inning of Braves' 7-6 victory over the Nationals.
Brian McCann follows through with his three-run double in third inning of Braves' 7-6 victory over the Nationals. (By John Bazemore -- Associated Press)
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By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 19, 2008

ATLANTA, July 18 -- It just so happened Friday night that the Washington Nationals, handed the fanciful chance to issue a statement about the second half of their season, instead issued a statement before the half even began.

Just minutes before the first pitch, the Nationals announced their latest malady: Dmitri Young, a diabetic, felt a wave of blurry vision brought on by a high blood-sugar level. He needed to miss the game. He told his manager. Like that, the all-star break ended and the regular curriculum of affliction resumed.

Any notion that four days off could recast Washington's season faded both before and during the Nationals' 7-6 loss to Atlanta on Friday night at Turner Field. Though Washington's first game of the second half offered flickering hope of a late-inning comeback, Austin Kearns ended the contest by lining out to right with the tying run on third and the go-ahead run on first. Washington had found a way to waste opportunities, not create new ones.

Because of Young's last-minute exit and the resulting lineup shuffle, the Nationals began the game with Johnny Estrada, the fourth catcher on their depth chart, batting fifth in the lineup.

Later, because of starter Tim Redding's shortest outing since April 7, the Nationals were down 6-2 by the middle of the game. Even a sixth- and seventh-inning rally against Atlanta starter Tim Hudson and a ninth-inning near-comeback against closer Mike Gonzalez couldn't prevent Washington's 10th loss in 11 road games. If the Nationals win every game the rest of the year, they will have a 101-61 record, 13 games worse than the 1998 New York Yankees.

"Everybody one though nine battled real hard," said Ryan Langerhans, inserted into the lineup in place of Young.

But, Redding said, "too bad there was too much damage to come all the way back."

The self-inflicted setbacks just outnumbered the deficit-shrinking hits. Redding's two walks in the bottom of the third hurt. So did the bases-clearing cannonball double to center from Atlanta's Brian McCann that turned a tie into a 5-2 game. Though Hudson, 7-1 with a 1.13 ERA against Washington before Friday, struggled to hold the lead, Redding had been hit hard enough, early enough that it didn't matter.

Still, give the Nationals credit: Their lineup refused a Class AAA Clippers impersonation. Langerhans had two hits, including a stand-up triple. Every position-playing starter except for Estrada had a hit. The team's three pinch hitters, Pete Orr, Jesús Flores and Felipe López, responded, in order, with a single, a sacrifice fly and a single.

A run in the sixth and two more in the seventh created some tension. And then, back-to-back hits in the ninth by López and Willie Harris created some more. One run later, with two outs, Kearns, 1 for 4 to that point, had the chance to jump-start Washington's second half.

For some in the Washington clubhouse, the idea that the season's second half can correspond with a team's better half was affirmed last season, when the Nationals played .500 baseball (37-37) after the all-star break. First game after the break, the team scored 14 runs in a win against Florida. By the last day of July, the team had started a six-game winning streak.

Before Friday's game, some speculated about the chance to duplicate such a turnaround. The speculation, though, collided head-on with a few realities. Asked about the second half, for instance, Young (who later said he would be okay) ended up simply talking about where the first half fell apart. "This year has been injury after injury after injury after injury after injury after injury," he said. "Which makes it tough."

Said Manager Manny Acta: "We're shooting to play better baseball in the second half, but, you know, still, you don't have [Lastings] Milledge, you don't have [Elijah] Dukes, you don't have [Ryan] Zimmerman, you don't have [Nick] Johnson. You can go on and on and on and on. We'll try to play better baseball regardless, but those days didn't bring any of those guys back."

Kearns, however, is one player who has already returned from injury, having come off the disabled list two weeks ago. Facing Gonzalez in the ninth, he had a chance to override Redding's sub-par start and punctuate Washington's comeback efforts. He saw one pitch, an outside curveball, and roped it to right field. But Atlanta's Jeff Francoeur needed only a few casual steps to record the out.

"I mean, that's the way the ball bounces," Acta said. "That line drive that Kearns hit at the end of the game, if it goes to the side of Francoeur or anywhere else, we take the lead there."

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