Mistakes Magnified as Nats Drop 10th Straight

By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 18, 2008

Twenty games in 20 days -- a stretch that included six series in three time zones -- finally ended yesterday for the Washington Nationals. It closed with a 7-2 loss to the Colorado Rockies at Nationals Park, the same result as the nine games prior, which makes the current 10-game losing streak the longest of the season.

The only thing the Nationals have beaten in the last 10 days, then, is themselves. In this case, it was topping nine-game losing streaks the team suffered two other times this season. It was being swept in yet another series this season, including six of the past eight.

If the numbers become overbearing, the Nationals have done little to prevent them. The manager and the players all insist the effort is there. Production and health are not.

"Obviously, it's not easy," Manager Manny Acta said. "Guys want to catch the ball, want to hit the ball and they want to throw strikes. They're just not doing it right now."

Losing became a team-wide effort, a confluence of poor luck and poor play. Starting pitcher Odalis Pérez, who allowed just four hits in six innings, watched shortstop Pete Orr make an error on a grounder in the fourth inning. Pérez walked the next batter and one pitch to Ian Stewart resulted in a three-run home run and the lone scoring blemish on Pérez's afternoon.

The bottom of the fifth inning revealed those same struggles -- some self-induced and some simply unfortunate -- that hurt the Nationals during the back half of the 20-game stretch.

The Nationals trailed by two with runners on first and second when Lastings Milledge ripped a liner to left-center field that bounced over the fence. The ground-rule double prevented Willie Harris from scoring from first base, which he likely would have done. The Nationals scored just one run on Milledge's hit, when the two runs would have tied the game and likely changed the way they played the final four innings.

Acta turned to pitching coach Randy St. Claire right after the ball bounced over the fence, immediately aware of the negative implications.

"When you're going bad, things like that happen," Acta said. "In a streak like this, you expect a ball like that to go over the wall because everything is going wrong."

After Aaron Boone struck out, Ronnie Belliard drew a walk. Even though Milledge's double did not score two runs, the Nationals still had the bases loaded. This is often an opportunity that distinguishes good teams from bad. Bases loaded, two outs and down by one run, a big hit assuredly alters the game.

Then you remember it is the Nationals, a team batting .188 with runners in scoring position during the 10-game losing streak. Timely hitting is seldom among the characteristics of a team 37 games below .500.

Ryan Langerhans popped out to right field on an inside fastball, a pitch he expected but the ball beat him "by a hair."

"When we're in a little stretch like this, everybody's trying to give it their all, and you're, like, 'I've got to do it' instead of almost like, 'I'm gonna do it,' " Langerhans said. "You just get up there and you want to get it done so bad sometimes it ends up working against you."

Nonetheless, a one-run deficit is not insurmountable. The problem arises when the Nationals' bullpen extends the deficit, as it has become prone to doing during the losing streak. That happened in the eighth inning, when it allowed four runs -- a solo home run by Brad Hawpe off Charlie Manning and a three-run, pinch-hit home run by Seth Smith off Jesús Colome.

Yesterday marked the seventh game during the losing streak in which Nationals relievers allowed more than two runs. This happened just once during the first 10 games of the 20-game stretch. The Nationals won six of those games.

The eighth inning extended the Rockies' lead from 3-2 to 7-2. Cutting into a one-run lead and five-run lead are drastically different. Fans knew it, too, with a stampede toward the Navy Yard Metro station even on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

"It's not fun," Pérez said. "It hasn't been fun, this 10-game losing streak."

Although this season has long been lost, Acta said that he can learn much the rest of the way that will help him next year.

"You can't flip-flop the whole team with another 25 guys," Acta said. "All they can do is give me the effort. This is what we have, this is what we're going to finish the season with and hopefully you can get better. This is a time where now you can see who can grind it out, who's going to be a guy who can stick with it and who's going to be a guy who's going to be with us for the future."

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