Nats Slip Against Padres, Fall for 6th Straight Time

Washington Finishes Dismal Road Trip With 2-7 Mark: Padres 7, Nationals 0

Nationals right fielder Jorge Padilla chases down a double by the Padres' Chase Headley in the fifth inning.
Nationals right fielder Jorge Padilla chases down a double by the Padres' Chase Headley in the fifth inning. (By Lenny Ignelzi -- Associated Press)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 3, 2009

SAN DIEGO, Sept. 2 -- Since mid-July, operating with a new manager and a renewed ability to play baseball without causing abject self-humiliation, the Washington Nationals have done much to foster an updated identity. They've committed fewer errors, clawed back for comeback wins and reclaimed a little respect -- all in an energized bid to avoid baseball's worst record.

Only in the latest week, though, have the new-and-improved Nationals encountered a hitch. On this road trip -- and most especially in Wednesday afternoon's 7-0 loss to San Diego at Petco Park -- the Nationals looked only familiar and flawed, issuing a reminder that newness and improvement can sometimes hit an expiration point.

Washington finished this road trip with a 2-7 record and a six-game losing streak. Its offense, in this three-game series against a last-place team, scored two runs, hitting .172 (16 for 93). Never under interim manager Jim Riggleman have the Nationals been more compliant with average pitching, more certain for 100 losses (they now have 88), or better positioned for next year's No. 1 draft pick. The presumed choice is a 16-year-old high school catcher from Las Vegas named Bryce Harper. His big league home run total, currently zero, would have looked very much at home in Wednesday's Washington lineup.

"We haven't been scoring runs, period, no matter what the lineup has been," Riggleman said. "We've just got to do better than that. It's not acceptable to go into two cities and not be able to scratch out a win or two."

Perhaps this shutout was the fitting banner headline for a game when nothing went right. With Josh Willingham slumping and Cristian Guzmán hurting, Riggleman penned a lineup that included Pete Orr batting fifth and Wil Nieves batting sixth. Their offense soft as a love song, the Nationals managed only two hits until the eighth. At one point, San Diego's Kevin Correia set down 19 in a row. That streak started in the first, when Orr slapped the ninth pitch of his at-bat to first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. And in a way, that was a high point. Not until the sixth inning would another Washington hitter make Correia throw more than four pitches in an at-bat.

Those responsible for Washington's longest losing streak since the all-star break returned to their clubhouse, packing for their plane ride back east, and tried to diagnose the issues. The Nationals miss Nyjer Morgan, their leadoff man and center fielder, whose injury corresponded with the start of this skid. They also know that performance dips and rises. Sure as their eight-game winning streak in August oversold their ability, this stretch sells it short.

"You go through bad stretches, enjoy the day off and get back ready to work," Ryan Zimmerman said.

During this trip, Washington actually received quality starting pitching -- and though John Lannan's final numbers (five innings, six hits, five earned runs) don't reflect a good day, he at least appeared on target for one until the fifth inning.

But there, in a scoreless game, his day unraveled.

With two aboard and two outs, Gonzalez sliced a line drive to left field. Outfielder Willie Harris gave chase. He almost looked like somebody tracking down a Frisbee in the park: The ball was drifting, drifting, drifting away, and it was just a matter of whether Harris had the leg speed.

He didn't. The ball sailed about two feet beyond his grasp, and Gonzalez had a two-run double. Worse, Lannan couldn't halt the inning, as San Diego kept picking away. There was an intentional walk and another two-run double. Then a Will Venable broken-bat single. When the inning ended, San Diego had a 5-0 lead.

"It's the way it went today," Lannan said. "It's the way the whole freakin' road trip went."

Even under Riggleman, Washington has rebounded from losing streaks. His tenure began with a five-game skid. The Nationals then won 14 of their next 22.

Said Riggleman: "We did this once earlier. I think our guys said, 'Enough is enough.' And I think we've got to do that now. At some point you just have to say, 'We're not going to get beat.' You have to will yourself to a win and not accept it. I know sometimes we think of down the road. We've got a lot of good parts for the future and all that, but when you're playing tonight, people pay to get into that ballgame, never mind next year. You've got to win that ballgame tonight."

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