By Mark Viera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
The Washington Nationals' football-shaped locker room turns in on itself. Every chair points toward the center. From where rookie Collin Balester stood last night, in front of his locker and surrounded by reporters, he could have looked at the culprits of his demise.
Sightlines would have directed Balester's eyes at his teammates, hardly any of whom bothered to stick around after last night's 2-1 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies. The misery continued for Washington -- a span that seems to stretch all the way back to spring training -- and 34,039 bore witness at Nationals Park. The Nationals, dispatched in only 2 hours 27 minutes, lost their seventh consecutive game. Their lagging bats once again nullified a solid pitching performance.
"I can't do anything about the hitting," Balester said. "No one can do anything about the hitting. All we have to do is, is every single time, no matter if you have a 10-run offense and score 10 runs a game, you have to try to go six innings, two runs or less than that."
It could have been Jason Bergmann. It could have been John Lannan. But last night was Balester's turn.
Balester, a 22-year-old right-handed prospect, is widely viewed as one of the organization's most promising talents and proved as much against a Philadelphia lineup that has mashed National League pitching. In going six innings, he made his longest appearance since his second start on July 6. That still couldn't help Balester (1-3) from taking the loss.
"It was one of my better performances of the year," said Balester, who allowed two runs on six hits with five strikeouts and no walks on 93 pitches. "[I] just keep getting stronger and stronger as the years go on. I'm learning so much and just trying to put it into every start. . . . I feel a little bit more comfortable now. If every start we could do that, the hitting's going to be there."
For a good portion of the season, though, the hitting has been absent. Especially recently, Washington (38-68) has provided miserable run support. During a winless six-game West Coast trip, the Nationals scored nine runs. They left 39 men on base. They batted .197. Their strikeouts (35) almost equaled their hits (38).
A day off and a three-hour time difference had no effect. Behind an efficient performance from starter Brett Myers (4-9) -- it took only 88 pitches for him to throw seven innings, allowing one unearned run -- the Phillies (57-49) yielded only four hits. Washington only had a handful of scoring chances.
With Ryan Zimmerman on first and two outs in the seventh, Lastings Milledge smoked a single that smacked Phillies third baseman Eric Bruntlett. The ball knocked off Bruntlett's shin and into the hands of shortstop Jimmy Rollins. He noticed Zimmerman had taken too wide a turn around second and threw to second baseman Chase Utley. He then tagged out Zimmerman. The inning ended. The Nationals' scoring opportunity died.
The Nationals managed to manufacture a run in the eighth, thanks in part to the Phillies' defensive sloppiness. With Paul Lo Duca on first after a single, Utley couldn't handle a hard-hit line drive by Felipe López. Cristian Guzmán, pinch-running for Lo Duca, then made his way to third on a sacrifice bunt by Ryan Langerhans and scored when Willie Harris grounded out to third.
After two scoreless games, the Nationals finally cracked the scoreboard. But they could not help their starter. Balester, a power pitcher with a heavy fastball, mixed a dipping curveball and an effective change-up to keep the Phillies guessing. "He pounded the zone with the three pitches he has," Manger Manny Acta said. "That will help when you have the good stuff like he does."
Washington, struggling at the big league level, has put stock in its young pitchers. Balester is considered a gem in the Nationals system -- as is evidenced by his early call-up -- and the organization is beginning to see return on its investment. But for all of Balester's ability, the members of his own locker room could not provide a lift he needed last night.
"He knows we're trying to get him that win, especially when our pitchers give up three or less runs," Milledge said. "We try our best, man. We just been coming up short, man. We just haven't been putting together a string of hits. We haven't been getting those big innings, those rallies. It's tough, man. It's real tough."