By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 23, 2008 2:02 AM
SAN FRANCISCO, July 22 -- With a few deals, a last-place team can shake up its roster, energize its players and renew a feeling of freshness. A last-place team can also undo most of that by taking the field.
Inflated by a day of acquisitions, extensions and returns, the Washington Nationals on Tuesday made certain all that momentum lasted until the remodeled team took the field. In the series opener against San Francisco, the Nationals had a third baseman coming back from injury, a shortstop buoyed by news of a contract extension, a newly established closer and an injection of goodwill.
Goodwill, however, has a short shelf life. A 6-3 loss to San Francisco at AT&T Park reeked of familiarity, displaying all the chronic eyesores. Second baseman Felipe López made a critical fourth-inning error. Jason Bergmann downgraded from a flyball pitcher into a home run pitcher. Barry Zito, tied for the major league lead in losses, used his passable array of semi-fastballs and change-ups to defeat the Nationals for the second time this year. The Nationals' bullpen promoted the other team's cause, not its own. After all of the shake-ups, Washington settled back into its lost season.
Among the refrains: "We just couldn't get the big hits today, and we didn't make some plays that we should have made," Manager Manny Acta said.
Certainly the full day of roster activity that preceded this game targeted no immediate net gain; it had the opposite intention, really. But still, the combination of comings and goings -- particularly Ryan Zimmerman's return, after missing 48 games -- imbued the Nationals with a feeling of newness.
In the clubhouse before the game, Cristian Guzmán joked with teammates about the cuts they'd get from his salary. Zimmerman, who successfully rehabbed a left shoulder injury without surgery, talked about his team's recent offensive surge, adding, "I hope I don't mess things up." General Manager Jim Bowden said, plainly, "We're a different team with Zim on it."
For a team that's spent every day since April 10 in last place, that's about as high as things get.
A low quickly replaced a high. On good days, Bergmann is a fly ball pitcher; on bad days, he's a home run pitcher. He established the latter identity on his second pitch of the game, an inside fastball to Fred Lewis that the Giants' left fielder punched over the thin row of right field stands. By the end of that inning, Bergmann had allowed two more runs and another homer -- this one to catcher Bengie Molina, who entered the game batting .132 in July. By the time Bergmann completed his five innings, Molina had another home run, and Bergmann had one primary self-critique: "My slider was nonexistent," he said, "and I kept trying to throw it for some reason."
It didn't help that others found ways to impede Washington's chances.
Lopez's fourth inning, two-out error -- he charged a Rich Aurilia grounder, then threw wide of first -- enabled an unearned run when Omar Vizquel doubled. Offensively, the Nationals couldn't solve Zito, one of the more solvable equations for other National League teams.
Even Guzman went 0 for 4. Zimmerman, playing for the first time since May 25, went 1-for-3 with a walk and a single up the middle in the fifth. (He grounded to second in his first at-bat and lined to short in his next.) Washington's three runs were a product of two less heralded veterans, Paul Lo Duca and Willie Harris. Lo Duca, starting in left field, contributed two RBI hits -- one of them a double down the third base line that scored Jesus Flores, the other a come-back chopper that nipped off a leaping Zito's glove and died behind the mound. But that, coupled with Harris's seventh home run, accounted for Washington's run production.
Coming off a series against Atlanta in which the Nationals scored six or more runs every time, on this night, the team had just eight hits.
San Francisco closer Brian Wilson finished the ninth for his National League-leading 26th save.
After the game, Bergmann was still talking about the inside pitches he threw to Molina when, suddenly, he broke from the topic.
"We still had some good things today," he said, his rising intonation suggesting a question. "We got Zimmerman back. Right? That's a good thing. He looked great today ... He looked good at the plate. We're starting to get some key guys back. [Austin] Kearns and Zimmerman back-to-back, that's a good thing for our lineup. That's a good thing."