Nationals Fall to Braves, 5-3

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 12, 2009

ATLANTA, April 11 -- Just like a losing streak itself, concern grows incrementally until it's no longer easy to dismiss, no longer easy to recover from. And so after Saturday night's loss, Washington's fifth in a row, Manager Manny Acta brought his players together to deliver a quick message. It wasn't even a formal meeting: Those happen when the problems run even deeper, and Acta, despite the losing, liked his team's effort. Here, he just wanted to preempt the concern.

He told his players to keep their heads up. He warned them not to feel sorry for themselves. He reminded them that baseball provides a long season. And nothing yet has ruined it.

"He said the right things," Adam Dunn said.

With their latest loss, a 5-3 defeat against the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field, the Nationals have found themselves at a dangerous juncture -- where, potentially, a lousy start to the season can metastasize. Only two teams in baseball, Washington and Cleveland, have yet to win. And the flashpoints of Saturday night's defeat exposed a team under increasing duress, especially when Lastings Milledge, rung up on a check-swing strikeout in the fourth, tossed his helmet and spiked his bat to the dirt, drawing the ire of home plate umpire Chuck Meriwether.

All night, the Nationals (0-5) only got fragments of what they needed. They needed clutch offense, but managed just one hit after the third inning. In the eighth, with two on, Nick Johnson grounded into a double play, killing a chance to tie or take the lead. They needed improved starting pitching, and though John Lannan lasted six innings, he also coughed up a 3-0 lead, allowed five hits in Atlanta's three-run fourth, and couldn't solve two Braves lefties, Kelly Johnson and Jordan Schafer, a pair responsible for most of the havoc.

Though several veterans spoke after this game about the team's improved play, the fact remains that Washington has a 7.84 team ERA, several defensive holes, and growing reason to worry. A franchise hoping to bury all history from a 102-loss season in 2008 now faces the possibility of fielding an 0-6 team for the Monday's home opener at Nationals Park.

"We need to come out tomorrow, put all these last fives games behind us, and get a win," Dunn said. "I think tomorrow is a game we need to win."

"Any time you lose three, four, five games in a row it's frustrating," Ryan Zimmerman said. "We've obviously had chances to win."

Before Lannan's outing on Saturday night, Nationals' starters, in four games, had contributed 15 innings, 26 hits, 22 runs, and a 13.20 ERA. Opponents batted .388 against them. Lannan was responsible for some of those eyesore numbers, because his first start of 2009 (six earned runs in three innings) doubled as one of the worst in his career.

This time, by the time Lannan got rolling, Washington's chances to finally win were much-improved. The Nationals scored the game's first three runs. In the first, Nick Johnson lined an RBI single to right in the first, scoring Zimmerman, whose banana slide helped him curve just outside the catcher's tag. Two innings later, Zimmerman swatted a first-pitch fastball toward the opposite field, riding it into the stands for a two-run homer, his first of the season.

The 3-0 lead, then, was Lannan's to hold.

He let it slip, instead.

Kelly Johnson managed a solo homer in the third, chipping away at the deficit. Then, in the fourth, the Braves strung together five hits -- three in a row with two outs. In that inning, both Schafer (the No. 8 hitter) and Johnson (the lead-off hitter) doubled. By then, the Braves had a 4-3 lead.

Just around the time the Nationals fell behind, Atlanta starter Kenshin Kawakami -- a Japanese star, imported this offseason -- fell into a groove. Making his first regular season start after signing a three-year, $23 million deal, Kawakami displayed his unique arsenal: A super slow-motion wind-up (he coils as if his limbs are strained by rubber bands); an adequate fastball that can hit 91 mph and a curve that often dips into the 60s. After yielding the Zimmerman home run, Kawakami was still a bit wild, but later finished by retiring seven consecutive batters. In his six innings, he allowed four hits and struck out eight.

"During the course of 162 games, you're probably going to have a six-game losing streak or a five-game losing streak," Dunn said. "But it's magnified. That's something people need to keep in consideration. If this happens in the middle of June or July or August, you know, every team is going to go through it. It's just we're going through it right now."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company