Derek Lowe strikes out 12 as Braves beat Nationals, 4-0

By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 13, 2010; 11:20 PM

ATLANTA - By virtue of their opponents, the Washington Nationals will wade into relevancy this week. On Monday night they began a six-game, two-city trip against the teams vying for the National League East title and instantly established the disparity between the contenders and themselves. Against a pitcher who once won the clinching game of the World Series, the Nationals included five rookies in their starting lineup, including a starting pitcher with scant experience: one career appearance, roughly two months living in America.

The Nationals started their week playing spoiler with Yunesky Maya doomed by one bad inning in his second a career start, a feeble offensive showing against Derek Lowe and a 4-0 loss to the Atlanta Braves. Maya surrounded a second-inning meltdown with reason for optimism as Lowe struck out a career-high 12 in eight innings, sending the Nationals to their sixth straight loss.

The Nationals would strike out 15 times total - four of them by Ian Desmond - as they dropped to 24 more losses than wins on the season, their worst record of the season. As the night wore and Lowe's pitches successfully tested the boundaries of the strike zone, the discrepancy between them and the Braves only widened.

"It's the chicken and the egg," Manager Jim Riggleman said. "You're not going to get the respect around the league as the Washington Nationals until you start winning some games. And it's harder to win games if you don't get a few breaks on some of those type of calls. That all comes out as an excuse, but we know the strike zone. Our hitters know the strike zone pretty good. For that many called strikes to be called, Lowe really took advantage of us."

The Nationals will be facing the same challenge as the play 12 of their next 16 games - including this whole trip - against the Braves and Philadelphia Phillies. Even if only 18,647 showed up Monday at Turner Field, plenty of fans around the country sweated the outcome.

The dismal offensive showing aside, the Nationals held up aside from one rough inning. In the second, Maya walked the first two batters he faced, Brian McCann and Derrek Lee. Before he threw a pitch to Nate McLouth, Maya inserted a hitch into his set and was called for a balk. He threw one pitch to McLouth, and then the hitch came back before he could throw a second. McCann scored, and Lee moved to third base. He'd score on McLouth's single.

After Matt Diaz tripled and Omar Infante singled, Maya and the Nationals trailed 4-0. Maya needed 36 pitches to escape the second with a horrific line: two walks, three hits, one hit batter, two balks.

One brutal inning has become a trend in Maya's brief tenure with the Nationals. The Mets spoiled his debut immediately, scoring three runs in the first. Even in his first minor league start at Class A Potomac, Maya allowed the first six batters to reach in one inning as he allowed five runs in the frame.

The one-inning collapses are "not a coincidence," Maya said through reliever Joel Peralta. When he gets runners on base, Maya said, he started "rushing a little to try to make everything perfect. Maya believes the problem stemmed, in part, from uncertainty with hitters in a new league. He wants to relax more with men on base and feels "disappointed" in his first two starts. He prides himself on precise control and command of the game. He called the balks "minor league stuff" he "shouldn't be doing here."

Maya, though, has surrounded his mini-disasters with promising efficiency. Take away Maya's second inning Monday night, and he retired 15 of 19, one of the runners reaching on Desmond's league-leading 33rd error of the season and another on a broken-bat bloop single. Against the Mets, Maya retired 11 of 12 at one point.

"He battled," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "He gave us a chance to win. For him to be able to rebound is obviously a positive. It's still pretty early to tell exactly what he's got, but he seems pretty good."

With Lowe dominating, Maya had virtually no margin for missteps, anyway. Lowe had been 0-3 with a 6.11 ERA this year against the Nationals, but with rest - the Braves recently skipped him in their rotation - he figured them out.

Lowe had made 318 starts in his career, and perhaps only the no-hitter he threw was as good this one. Home plate umpire Dan Iassongna allowed low strikes, and Lowe took full advantage. He peppered his darting pitches - "cutter-slider things," Zimmerman said - low and outside.

The Nationals eventually adjusted to the generous strike zone, but not until Lowe had struck out five Nationals looking in the first four innings. No Nationals base runner reached third base, and only Nyjer Morgan, with an eighth-inning double, reached second.

Fittingly, the final three Nationals batters of the game also struck out. The gap between the best and the Nationals had only grown, and at least they have plenty of chances to see if they can shrink it.

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