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Stalwart in the First Half, Rotation Struggling in 2nd

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 19, 2008

For the first 3 1/2 months of this season, the Washington Nationals' starting rotation acted as a five-man protective barrier, damming the team from the losing streaks that it deserved based on its hitting and relief pitching. Always, the rotation held strong.

But since the all-star break, Washington's starting pitching has broken down -- perhaps because of the disproportionate weight it long carried. In 29 games this second half, Washington's starters have a 5.70 ERA, a stretch of prolonged badness that explains plenty about the team's current 10-game losing streak. Nobody yet has stepped forward with the performance to halt it. Not John Lannan, shelled for eight earned runs in four innings Saturday. Not Jason Bergmann, who exited last Wednesday's game with a 10-0 deficit. Certainly not Tim Redding, who's 1-5 with a 7.59 ERA since the break.

Asked after his most recent start -- his fourth consecutive game with at least four earned runs -- to describe his last month, Redding settled on a precise assessment:

"Horse[expletive]," he said.

Redding, though, is just part of the backsliding. In the middle of July, a trio of Washington's established starters -- Redding, Lannan and Odalis Pérez -- have ERAs under 4.00. Bergmann's (4.01) was just a tick above.

Many of the problems correlate to the rotation's sudden loss of command. Compare the starters' strikeout-to-walk ratio, for instance, since the break (118 strikeouts, 70 walks) and before the break (352 strikeouts, 187 walks). During the team's current losing streak, no starter has pitched beyond the sixth inning. But four times, those pitchers have walked at least five batters.

The Nationals had a scheduled off day yesterday for the first time since July 28, a break that, if nothing else, puts some distance between the team and its latest morass. Before leaving Nationals Park on Sunday, Manager Manny Acta held a meeting, telling his players to "Stay away, stay positive, go home, forget about baseball."

"It's good," said Pérez, thankful for a chance to rest. "We haven't had an off day in a long time. . . . Hopefully [today] we get into Philly and we have to turn it around."

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