Nats' Bats Silenced By Rookie

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 28, 2008

LOS ANGELES, July 27 -- Over the last four games, counting Sunday afternoon, the Washington Nationals have managed two runs total. Yes, the sun will come up tomorrow, but it's never a good sign when it rises more often than a baseball team scores.

Since Thursday -- a span that includes three shutouts -- the Nationals are batting .133. They have four extra-base hits, all doubles. They've negated three superlative starting pitching performances. They've parachuted toward the sort of depths where anger and disgust await. Depending on whom you ask, those might be the exact emotions this team needs. They might be the two emotions this team cannot afford.

Los Angeles took one final turn beating Washington's dead horse Sunday at Dodger Stadium, using a 2-0 shutout -- including six four-hit innings from rookie Clayton Kershaw -- to raise the latest go-round of questions about rock bottom. All season, Washington has combated its struggles with an even keel. Losses mount. Emotions hold steady. So far, the Nationals haven't reached a breaking point.

Press some players on the matter, and they will reveal disgust. With their six-game losing streak. With their inability to capitalize on some newfound health, a lineup fortified by the return of Ryan Zimmerman and Lastings Milledge. With their failure to build that 29-run, three-game series last weekend against Atlanta into a trend. "We don't come here to play like this," Felipe López said.

But mostly, as Washington's players headed out of the clubhouse late Sunday, the sentiment was less about disgust and more about composure.

"We're professionals, we don't get down, man," Milledge said. "It kind of gets on your mind a little bit that we can play better than how we're playing right now, but we don't let anything linger. You know, it's on to the next day. We have a game every day. I say it repeatedly this year about our struggles -- we play every day, and every day we've got to strap it on."

Though Kershaw, 20, took the mound against Washington without a major league victory, his coronation on this day felt inevitable. He can throw just as fast as Matt Cain, who shut out Washington on Thursday; he has the same easy delivery as Derek Lowe, who blanked Washington on Saturday. To legitimize his phenom hype, he struck out four Nationals in the first two innings. He didn't allow a hit until the third. Even when Milledge led off the fifth with a bunt single, his next gamble -- understandable given Washington's offensive difficulties -- proved costly.

Instead of stopping at second on a Paul Lo Duca groundout to third, Milledge tried to take third. But Los Angeles shortstop Nomar Garciaparra noticed Milledge take off and hustled to third just in time to get the throw back from first, a pinball double play that required two throws across the infield.

"I thought it was a great decision on my part, and I went for it," Milledge said. "You know, we want to be aggressive on the base paths."

In the at-bat that followed Milledge's out at third, back-up catcher Wil Nieves pinged a double to left field, heightening the what-ifs.

The larger sense of wasted opportunity, though, extended from Jason Bergmann's latest start, a six-inning effort in which he limited Los Angeles to two runs and six hits. Aside from allowing a James Loney solo home run in the second, Bergmann made few mistakes. Among starters with at least 75 innings pitched this season, Bergmann (1-8) has the league's lowest winning percentage. He also has the saddest run of luck. He's winless in his last 12 starts, despite allowing two earned runs or fewer eight times.

Bergmann, 0 for 25 this season, also had perhaps his team's best at-bat against Kershaw. Following Nieves's double in the fifth, Bergmann battled the Los Angeles left-hander for 10 pitches, fouling off seven, including six in a row. Though the at-bat ended with a groundout to second, Bergmann had inflated Kershaw's pitch count and shortened the rookie's outing.

"I really hate not doing well at something. I'm really just not a good hitter. I choked up really high," Bergmann said. "I thought there was no chance in hell I'd hit a ball square. I'm just not that good a hitter."

To find company, Bergmann needed only to watch the sixth inning, in which Kershaw retired the side on five pitches. Or the ninth, when the Nationals, facing reliever Jonathan Broxton, made two quick outs, setting the customary send-'em-home scene for Austin Kearns.

Dodger Stadium rose. Broxton, right arm dangling, looked in for the sign. Arms together, he paused. Fourth pitch, a fastball, Kearns tapped to third. One bare hand play later, Los Angeles had its sweep.

A new low?

"Ah, no. I don't think so," Manager Manny Acta said. "Look, what makes rock bottom? We won two out of three in Atlanta and I didn't hear the question. How many games make rock bottom? I mean, losing 2-0, 1-0, is that rock bottom?"

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