Nats Go Down Again Without Much of a Fight

Reds 3, Nationals 0

Ken Griffey Jr. hit a two-run home run -- No. 604 of his career -- off Jason Bergmann in the first inning, providing all the offense the Reds needed.
Ken Griffey Jr. hit a two-run home run -- No. 604 of his career -- off Jason Bergmann in the first inning, providing all the offense the Reds needed. (By Tony Tribble -- Associated Press)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 5, 2008; Page E01

CINCINNATI, July 4 -- With the Washington Nationals' 54th loss of the season just one out shy of formality, the fans at Great American Ball Park took the opportunity to celebrate a foregone conclusion instead of a win. Just before 5:30 p.m. Friday, under a steady drizzle, with the home crowd on its feet, Cristian Guzmán fouled off a 2-2 pitch from closer Francisco Cordero.

The Nationals remained alive, but only by technicality. Guzmán's foul set off a premature victory celebration, replete with smoke and flare rising from faux smokestacks in center field and a barrage of fireworks blasting from beyond the right field corner of the stadium. The Nationals waited 30 seconds for the noise to succumb before Guzmán stepped back in the box and succumbed right on cue.

He saw one more pitch, watching it pass along the outside corner. Home plate umpire Sam Holbrook punched the air, indicating a strikeout, and for the second time in a minute Cincinnati celebrated a 3-0 win that was never in doubt.

The Reds converged in the middle of the infield for the postgame handshakes. Two Nationals, Willie Harris and Wily Mo Peña, lingered along the railing of the visitors' dugout. This sleepy, sorry affair that started with rain and ended without a fight dropped Washington to a season-low 20 games under .500, a pace of losing that renders its current stretch -- four losses in five games -- barely eligible for slump status.

Washington reached its new low by way of the same old. Defensive blunders and offensive slumber ensured that a quality start by Jason Bergmann wouldn't matter. The Reds gained a 2-0 lead three batters into the bottom of the first when Ken Griffey Jr. lined a plump fastball off an advertising sign beyond the right field bullpen. After that, though Bergmann pitched well enough to keep the game close, Washington never made it seem like it could close the gap. When left fielder Elijah Dukes misjudged a low fly ball hit in the fourth by Cincinnati pitcher Bronson Arroyo -- the ball rolled all the way to the fence -- the Reds had their third run, building a lead that needed no building.

"Quality starts are great, but I'd like to see some more wins on board for the team," said Bergmann (1-6), who lasted six innings and allowed three runs, two earned. "We could really use them."

Washington's level of play through 88 games has dropped the team into such a state of non-contention that team management has withdrawn all hopes of salvaging the season. No matter what happens, 2008 will be a year themed by losses like this one: The Nationals, after waiting through a 1-hour 47-minute rain delay, fell to the mat in 2 hours 22 minutes. They were shut out for the 10th time.

A season without hope, though, has a corollary benefit -- one General Manager Jim Bowden made clear Friday. It bestows the team a particular maverick freedom to play with its roster, especially as the trading deadline nears. With nothing to gain in the second half, and with little reluctance -- or conceivable ability -- to make the current product worse, Bowden is willing to do anything this month, so long as he believes it will make the team stronger in 2009 and 2010.

Normally around this time of year, teams align themselves as buyers or sellers. But the Nationals have so detached themselves from goals for the season that they're approaching the trading deadline as most clubs might approach an offseason.

"We've told every club we have complete flexibility on trading players and acquiring players," Bowden said. "So we're keeping every avenue open to us. We've let all the clubs know that. If someone wants to know if we're a buyer or a seller, we're both. Any way that we can add long-term pieces, we're going to add long-term pieces. Because we're not in a structure where we're trying to make trades to help this team win right now."

On Friday, the Nationals again showed the reasoning behind such a strategy. Facing Arroyo, Washington had just five hits in six innings. Most lineups welcome Arroyo in the manner that kids might welcome an ice cream truck: Before facing the Nationals, Arroyo owned one of the highest ERAs among major league starters. Just two starts earlier, Arroyo became the sixth starting pitcher in history to allow at least 10 earned runs when retiring three batters or fewer.

But here, for the first time all season, the right-hander finished his start without permitting a run. Washington attributed most of that to Arroyo. "He was able to throw his breaking pitches from different angles for strikes," Manager Manny Acta said. "And he just kept every one of our guys off balance."

"We're all in here working hard, we're all in here trying to get wins," said Harris, who started in center field. "We're just coming up short, and there's really no answer for it. All you can do is keep going out, keep working hard, just pray that things change. I don't see us down and out. I don't see us not working. I don't see us not caring."

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