By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 21, 2010; D01
In the first two weeks of this season, the Washington Nationals extricated themselves from the ugliness of last season. They are not immune to spasms of looking like their old selves, and Tuesday night brought another reminder. Their .500 record demands they be taken seriously, but the Nationals can sometimes still look bad with the worst of them.
The Nationals' sine-wave starting pitching struck again in a 10-4 loss to the Colorado Rockies before 15,037 at Nationals Park. Starter Scott Olsen, who five days earlier engendered optimism by battling the Philadelphia Phillies' potent lineup, could not record an out in the third inning. For the second time in three days, the Nationals trailed by 10 runs before the Presidents Race.
At an early stage of the season, the Nationals have established a clear delineation of why they win and why they lose. They are 7-0 when their starter pitches at least five innings, and they are 0-7 when their starter does not. The rotation has spent recent games toggling between extremes. Their last four starting pitchers -- Liván Hernández, Jason Marquis, Craig Stammen and Olsen -- have respectively recorded 27, 0, 24 and 6 outs.
"Well, I'd say it's odd," Manager Jim Riggleman said. "Usually, it wouldn't be as drastic as it has been. You get something a little more in between. We've had some outstanding performances and we've had some ones that, our pitchers are feeling like, 'I don't know what was wrong with me.' "
Whenever the Nationals' rotation has started rolling, one of its members has delivered a clunker. "We can't have that," Riggleman said. Despite starts of nine and eight innings since Saturday, Nationals starting pitchers have thrown 65 1/3 innings this year, more than only the Pittsburgh Pirates, who have played one fewer game. Nationals starters have averaged 4 2/3 innings per start.
The Nationals have won when their starter gives them a chance, and Tuesday night Olsen did not. After a 1-2-3 first inning, he unraveled. He allowed seven hits, including one to all four batters he faced in the third inning. The final damage was six earned runs in two innings.
"Sometimes it just falls apart on you," Olsen said. "That's kind of what happened there."
After one start in Class AAA Syracuse, Olsen replaced Garrett Mock, having convinced the Nationals he had recovered from last year's shoulder surgery and recaptured his typical velocity. In his first start of the season, he pitched into the sixth inning against the Phillies and allowed four runs.
Tuesday night, Olsen still had the velocity he needs to make his pitches effective, hitting 90 mph on the stadium radar gun with regularity. The start included no physical setbacks for Olsen, just subpar execution.
"The feel is there," Olsen said. "Arm's fine. It's encouraging that I'll be able to get my arm over my tomorrow. Other than that, there's really not a whole lot of positives I'll be able to take out of today."
Olsen walked one and threw 33 of his 51 pitches for strikes, but his control vanished. He peppered the upper half of the strike zone "thigh-high instead of knee-high," Olsen said. The Rockies, playing in the wake of the sudden death of team President Keli S. McGregor, took advantage.
Olsen's first misstep came when shortstop Troy Tulowitzki led off the second inning. Olsen fell behind 3-1 and tried to throw a fastball low and away. He instead zipped a letter-high, 88-mph fastball, and Tulowitzki deposited the pitch where letter-high fastballs belong. It landed over the Rockies' bullpen.
Olsen escaped the second with a strikeout. He would not record an out in the third. The Rockies mashed four consecutive hits off Olsen, not one of them cheap. Dexter Fowler led off with a triple to the left-center gap. Todd Helton, Tulowitzki and Brad Hawpe followed with missiles that fell for singles.
Riggleman had already pulled pitchers this season who had retired 10, 4 and 0 batters. Now he'd yank one who retired six. Riggleman walked from the dugout and Olsen handed him the ball.
In jogged Tyler Walker, who did plenty of his own damage. Walker gave up a three-run double to Rockies starter Jorge De La Rosa. On the very next pitch, Ryan Spilborghs crunched a rare opposite-field home run over the scoreboard in right-center field. Two games after allowing 10 runs in the first inning, the Nationals surrendered eight in the third and again found themselves down, 10-0.
From that point on, the Nationals played well enough to lose by six. Walker settled and the bullpen held the Rockies to zero runs after the third. Ryan Zimmerman hit a two-run homer off of De La Rosa in the fifth inning. and Ian Desmond and Cristian Guzmán, who went 4 for 5 with a double, smoked an RBI singles in the sixth. The Nationals banged 12 hits total.
The Nationals proved, even in an ugly defeat, they possess the pieces of a legitimate team. But those become irrelevant, they learned again, when their own starting pitching dooms them.