Upon learning about two hours before yesterday's game that scheduled St. Louis Cardinals starter Mark Mulder was being scratched because of a stiff neck, the Washington Nationals might have been relieved.
Instead of facing the 15-game winner, the Nationals would take on slumping Jason Marquis. But the change proved inconsequential, because no other team can so easily make anonymous opposing pitchers look like Roger Clemens, Sandy Koufax and Walter Johnson.
So as frustrating as yesterday's 6-0 spanking by the Cardinals was, it shouldn't have come as much of a surprise that Marquis, a 13-game loser who was 0-7 with a 7.24 ERA over his last seven starts and was pitching on short rest, shut them down on two hits.
"I just can't figure this team out," manager Frank Robinson said. "The more a pitcher has struggled or the higher his ERA is, the worse we do with him."
The list grows with each day. In their last eight games alone, the Nationals have looked helpless against the likes of Jae Seo, Luke Hudson, Brandon Claussen and now Marquis. In 292/3 innings against those four unimposing pitchers, they've scored a total of three runs.
It's hard to gain ground in a pennant race when you do that.
"We're going this way," Robinson said, pointing his finger to the ground. "The other teams are going that way [pointing up]. We're only hanging around by the grace of what the other teams are not doing, not what we're doing."
Even when the Nationals (67-62) do offer up glimpses of respectability -- Friday night's 4-1 win over Jeff Suppan, for example -- they squander it with lifeless performances like yesterday's before 44,254 at RFK and a nationwide TV audience.
Washington has put together back-to-back wins just twice since the All-Star break, a maddening stretch that has left this club on the fringes of the National League wild-card race instead of leading the NL East.
"I can't figure it out," left fielder Marlon Byrd said. "One day we go out there and we're the greatest team on the field. The next day, it just doesn't click."
Certainly nothing clicked against Marquis, who was pressed into service on three days' rest after Mulder showed up with a stiff neck and asked to have his start pushed back a day.
Not that Marquis (10-13) isn't a serviceable pitcher -- he won 15 games last year for a team that went to the World Series. But the right-hander had been on a dubious streak over the last month, to say the least: seven starts, seven losses, 37 runs allowed.
"When you go through a streak like that, you start doubting yourself," Marquis said. "You start changing your game plan and start to be a little too tentative. You stop being aggressive in the strike zone. You start trying to make perfect pitches on the black and fall behind in the count."
He did none of that yesterday in tossing the first complete game of his six-year career. The only Nationals to reach base were Cristian Guzman, who singled to left in the third, and Byrd, who did likewise in the sixth.
That was it. Two hits. No walks. No runners in scoring position. No hope.
"We're dead in the water," Robinson said. "No one tries to bunt to get something going. You don't see a hitter walk up to home plate and even make an effort to work the count. We seem to go up and say, 'Let's jump on the first pitch that looks like a strike, and let's get out of here.' That's the way it looks."
It didn't help matters that Washington was playing from behind nearly all afternoon. Left-hander Matt White, called up from Class AAA New Orleans on Friday night for his first career start, made it through two innings unscathed but cracked in the third, walking two batters and hitting another. Albert Pujols lofted a sacrifice fly to right to bring home the Cardinals' first run. So Taguchi followed with a two-out, two-run single to left on a hanging curveball.
"Everything was going good there until the third inning," said White, who was optioned back to New Orleans after the game. "I just kind of got behind some hitters, and you can't do that here."
After he surrendered one more run in the fourth, White's day was done. A trio of Washington relievers tried to keep their team in the game after that, but Mike Stanton served up a two-run homer to light-hitting shortstop David Eckstein in the seventh.
It was the final blow in an unsavory ballgame from the Nationals' perspective, one that quickly erased any good vibes from the previous night's victory.
"What's really baffled me is [how] we can come and play with energy like we did yesterday, and the next day not bring the same type of intensity and energy," Robinson said. "That's what I don't understand."
By Andrew P. Napolitano
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