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New Stadium, New Pressure

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Thursday, April 24, 2008; Page E01

In their old digs at RFK Stadium last season, in a subterranean world of science-fiction-size rodents, insects and fungi, the Nationals often were mortified by their surroundings but seldom miserable in their baseball. Bonded by obscurity and comfortable with nonexistent expectations, they focused on their sport, played to their limits and delighted some of baseball's smallest crowds. "That was one of the most fun years I've ever had in baseball," Austin Kearns said last night.

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Now, their lockers are lined with mink, their shower fixtures are made of platinum and that Gatorade bucket in their dugout is filled with champagne. Not really. But a walk through their world would make sheiks and sultans jealous. Yet life is hard and baseball suddenly a burden for the Nats, who lost again last night to the Mets, 7-2, extending their spring debacle to 16 losses in 20 games by a humongous margin of 43 runs.

Quickly, crowds at the new Nationals Park are filling to the top rows, with 32,780 on hand to see the Mets in Washington's 22nd game of the season; only 21,662 showed up at RFK for the Nats' 23rd game of last season, also against the Mets. The Nats, measured date-for-comparable-date, soon will be up more than 50 percent in attendance. They've gone big-time. But are they ready for it? Not yet, that's for sure.

Who knew the curse of the Midas touch applied to ballparks? The Nats are surrounded with everything money can buy. But some might trade it all for the .500 record they built in their last 128 games last season. As catcher Paul Lo Duca said recently of the Nats inept start, "A squirrel could do better."

There's still a week left in April, but the suffering 6-16 Nats already have had two team meetings. No method of self-flagellation has been neglected. They've lost a one-run game because of a passed ball and another on a walk-off wild pitch. On another wild pitch, two runs somehow scored. They've been shut out by the obscure -- Kyle Lohse, Mike Pelfrey and Nelson Figueroa -- as well as the renowned Tim Hudson. Center fielder Lastings Milledge has had one routine fly ball pop out of his glove, and he lost another in the sun. And too many Manny Acta moves merely have prompted disaster as his short-handed bullpen has imploded. Last night, wave in Ray King, score 2-2, wave goodbye to game.

Oh, there have been plenty of injuries. Shawn Hill, the only staff ace in the majors with six career wins, has pitched only five innings this season. Closer Chad Cordero has been on the disabled list, hasn't saved a game and is still trying to strengthen an alarmingly weak right shoulder. Dmitri Young, Elijah Dukes and Wily Mo Peña, among others, have been disabled, too. But the Nats' biggest problem is a complete heart-of-the-order clutch-hitting breakdown -- often a sign of a team coping poorly with pressure. Ryan Zimmerman (.215) is 2 for 27 with runners in scoring position, and Nick Johnson (.209) and Kearns (.205) are worse.

Last night included a prototypical mega-slump moment. Pitcher Tim Redding, of all people, hit a 390-foot two-run double off the center field wall off Earth's best pitcher, Johan Santana, for a 2-1 fourth-inning lead. With one out in the top of the next inning, Redding walked the eighth hitter, then also walked Santana when he was just trying to lay down a sacrifice bunt and give away an out. A team without demons kicks the dirt and moves on. A team in full gag mode thinks, "Uh oh, here we go again." And there they went, soon tied, quickly behind, then so dejected as to be barely ambulatory by the late innings.

Expectations have increased around the Nats in recent months, partly from the luxury of their surroundings, but also from a growing sense of pressure that runs through the whole organization; demands for results, not just effort, have been raised. Soon, the internal demands of this franchise will be for a contender, nothing less.

"This team needs to believe it is good. You have to start every season wanting to go to the playoffs and expecting to be in contention," Lo Duca said. "You need to be cocky. We're going to have some fun this year. Once we get over the hump, we're going to enjoy this new park. But we've given away four or five games already. We have nothing to lose. We should play that way. The worst thing you can do is play not to lose."

Yet that is exactly what the Nats have done all month.

"The days pile up on top of each other." Manager Manny Acta said. "I know how hard the players are trying. I can handle it." But he worries about his young players. They are trying too hard, while his veterans sometimes seem flat.

How can a team try to do too much, care too much for its own good, yet also seemed enervated at times. Aren't those contradictory? Third base coach Tim Tolman has pondered the problem. "Shrinks say that depression is anger turned inwards," I said. "That sounds like us," Tolman said with a bitter chuckle. And he'd know. Last week, Tolman got a runner thrown out at home plate with the Nats six runs behind. Even the third base coach is trying too hard.


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