New York Mets Shut Down Washington Nationals, 7-0

New York Mets pitcher Livan Hernandez delivers against the Washington Nationals during the first inning of their baseball game in Washington, Sunday, June 7, 2009. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
New York Mets pitcher Livan Hernandez delivers against the Washington Nationals during the first inning of their baseball game in Washington, Sunday, June 7, 2009. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) (Charles Dharapak - AP)
By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 8, 2009

The winning streak, or at least what counts for one inside the beltway of bad baseball, had a lifespan of one night and one short morning. A beer before closing time and a coffee with breakfast. By lunchtime yesterday, the Washington Nationals, after a brief bout with competence, were back to the same old problems, tripping into an early deficit, showing little pulse thereafter, and fully restoring their identity as a team adept only at keeping itself unhappy.

After yesterday afternoon's 7-0 loss to the New York Mets at Nationals Park, nobody was happy. Not outfielder Austin Kearns, who struck out twice, grounded into a double play and hasn't produced an RBI in a full month. Not Manager Manny Acta, who hasn't presided over consecutive wins since May 8 and 9. Certainly not starting pitcher Craig Stammen, who, in the fourth start of his big league career, yielded five runs in the top of the first.

"Well it's not very good," Acta said, "especially after we played such a good game yesterday."

At 1:39 p.m., Stammen threw the first pitch and promptly pulled the plug on Washington's optimism. Stammen had thrown a terrific bullpen minutes earlier -- pitching coach Steve McCatty reported to Acta that his rookie sinker-baller looked terrific -- but here, under the watch of 31,841, Stammen found no carryover. He walked the leadoff man on four pitches. He fell behind the next hitter, Fernando Martinez, and thought about a double-play ball; those sort of things tend to happen when his sinker is sinking.

Instead, with the count 1-1, Martinez hammered a pitch off the wall in right-center. Cue the avalanche: Stammen kept falling behind hitters. He walked another one. Daniel Murphy roped a single. Ryan Church blitzed a double. Stammen threw two wild pitches, both creating runs. By the end of the inning, the Mets had five runs and three hits, and Stammen had thrown 32 pitches -- 17 balls.

The wildness was particularly troubling, because it came in a week in which McCatty, the new pitching coach, had preached to his staff about aggressiveness -- and a willingness to throw strikes, no matter the result.

"In the first inning he was having a hard time making quality pitches," catcher Josh Bard said. The way Bard described it, Stammen, early in the first inning, was trying to escape the whole mess with one pitch. "He kept trying to jam a square peg through a round hole," Bard said.

If aggressiveness is the new standard of measurement for Washington's pitchers, toughness is a close second. McCatty likes toughness. During his own career, in 1980, he threw a 14-inning, 204-pitch complete game. He doesn't recommend such a test for anybody on his young staff, of course, but he values self-reliance. Work with what you've got. Fight back. "Get out there and throw strikes, take your beating like a man and trust yourself to get the good results," is how McCatty put it.

Stammen's five-run first inning cost him the chance at a useful start, but it didn't cost him the chance to make an impression. After the early struggles, he rebounded. In his final four innings, he threw just 55 pitches. He walked nobody, and surrendered no runs. Only two Mets managed hits.

Stammen described his mind-set after the first inning thusly: "Get through as many innings, and try to not give up any runs."

"You have to look at all that," Acta said. "At least he didn't come in the next inning and do the same thing. He bounced back okay, except that he needs to understand that if you're not a miss-bat type of guy, you can't pitch behind in the count."

Washington's lineup faced its own problems when behind. Liván Hernández is little more than a No. 4 starter at this point in his career, but that would be different if he faced his ex-teammates more frequently. Less than two weeks ago, on May 26, Hernandez had the best start of his season against the Nationals at Citi Field, throwing a one-run complete game. At worst, yesterday's start qualified as a close second. The big, slow-throwing right-hander cruised through seven innings, limiting Washington to just four hits.

"He was on today again against us," Acta said. "We have a lot of young hitters, and when he's on, he can just prey on those young guys, just tease them with those pitches just barely off the strike zone, and the guys just keep going after it."

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