- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 9, 2005

With 51 games remaining, the Washington Nationals’ extended slump has made this abundantly clear: For the team to reach the playoffs, its pitching must carry it there.

The Nationals are the worst-hitting team in the major leagues. Since the All-Star break they have just 68 runs in 23 games (2.96 a game). So a pitching staff that already has the fifth-best ERA in baseball has had even less margin for error.

“To ask us to do more than what we’ve already being doing this year would be pretty tough I would think,” right-hander John Patterson said. “To put more pressure on a pitching staff … to throw a shutout every time basically is what you’d be asking, is a little farfetched.”

On Saturday at RFK Stadium, Ryan Drese gave up three runs on seven hits in six innings in a 3-2 loss to the San Diego Padres. The Nationals’ offense managed just five hits.

On Sunday, Esteban Loaiza pitched seven strong innings and allowed just three runs on six hits. But his record dropped to 6-8 as the Padres’ Jake Peavy pitched a five-hit shutout.

“I don’t think it is all on the pitchers,” pitching coach Randy St. Claire said. “You can put pressure on anybody you want, but to me it isn’t that way at all. You just ask your pitchers to go out and do the job that they can do. You can’t put, ‘Oh, if you’re in the pennant race, it’s on the pitchers.’ It’s a team, and it’s on the team.”

The Nationals rank last in the majors with a .252 team batting average. The pitching staff, meanwhile, has the fifth-best ERA in baseball — third best in the National League — at 3.76. The NL’s top staffs are St. Louis, Houston, Washington and Atlanta.

“What I’ve always said is look at team pitching in each league and see where the teams are in the standings,” general manager Jim Bowden said.

Right now, the Nationals (58-53) are carrying just 11 pitchers in order to give manager Frank Robinson another much-needed hitter off the bench. Along with batting average, the Nationals are last in baseball in runs (425) and home runs (77) and last in the NL in stolen bases (31).

The lack of run support shows in the records of the starters other than staff ace Livan Hernandez (13-4).

Patterson, who is starting tonight’s three-game series against the wild-card leading Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park, is just 5-3 despite a 2.42 ERA that ranks fourth in the majors.

Patterson has strung together seven straight quality starts but has been victimized by his teammates’ silent bats. He has allowed two or fewer runs 15 times in his last 20 starts but has just five wins to show for it.

“It is true that a lot of the pressure is going to be put on the pitching staff to hold the runs down, but to put all the pressure on the pitching staff isn’t very fair,” Patterson said.

In 18 games beginning July 19, the Nationals’ starters have gone at least six innings 14 times, including five efforts of at least eight innings.

“You don’t only win with the pitching, you win with something else for everything you do in the field,” Hernandez said. “When I’m pitching, I go pitch and think I’m going to win. I’m not thinking that I need to throw a shutout, because it’s not the point.

“The point is when you go out, you give it your best and try to win the game. In a game, you never know what’s going to happen. The pitching is doing a good job this year.”

In his last start Thursday against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Patterson tossed a shutout. That was also the last game the Nationals won.

In Hernandez, the Nationals have one of the league’s top workhorses. He ranks third in the league with 171 innings pitched; Houston’s Roy Oswalt leads the league with 1712/3, and St. Louis’ Chris Carpenter is next at 1711/3.

“To me, Livo is probably the model of consistency,” St. Claire said. “You know what you’re going to get night after night after night, that he is going to run you out there deep into that ballgame and he is going to keep their offense down to a fairly low score — two, three, four runs.”

The club’s bullpen also deserves credit. Closer Chad Cordero leads the majors with 36 saves. Setup men Gary Majewski (2-2, 3.21 ERA) and Luis Ayala (7-6, 2.71 ERA) have done the job all season.

The Nationals relievers have accounted for 18 of the team’s 58 wins. Ayala has the second-most wins on the team after Hernandez’s 13. With rigor mortis starting to set in on the Nationals offense, the club’s pitching appears to be what’s keeping the club in the pennant race.

“Everybody always says good pitching can beat good hitting any day of the week,” Majewski said. “We just have to keep doing what we can. Sooner or later, things are going to start happening for us.”

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