- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 4, 2005

LOS ANGELES — For a team that’s played pretty good baseball through the first month of the season, the Washington Nationals sure didn’t act the part last night.

They got a poor effort from starting pitcher Zach Day, who lasted just 3-2/3 innings. They ran themselves out of two potentially big innings. And by night’s end, they were left to ponder a 4-2 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers that was far more frustrating than it probably needed to be.

The high the Nationals were riding following Monday’s inspiring win at Dodger Stadium was all but gone 24 hours later. With a roster increasingly decimated by injuries, Washington (14-13) may be teetering on the brink just two games into its nine-game West Coast trip.

Day, who could now be headed for the bullpen with Tony Armas Jr.’s planned return from the disabled list this weekend, was partly to blame for last night’s struggle before a crowd of 41,190 that seemed more interested in beach balls than baseball.

Day’s poor outing, though, might have been forgotten had his teammates not spoiled two prime scoring opportunities with shoddy baserunning.

The Nationals missed an opportunity to pad an early 2-0 lead when Jose Guillen ran into an out at third base in the fourth. The bigger mishap came in the seventh, when they failed to score despite putting their first three batters on base.

Washington had Los Angeles manager Jim Tracy sweating when pinch-hitter Carlos Baerga lofted a single to right-center with two on and no one out. But third-base coach Dave Huppert put up the stop sign late on Brian Schneider, and trailing runner Cristian Guzman was caught in no man’s land behind him, tagged out by shortstop Cesar Izturis.

Tony Blanco, pinch-running for Baerga, then nearly ran into out No. 2 when he took off for second before reliever Giovanni Carrara let go of the ball. First baseman Hee-Seop Choi, though, fumbled the ball and Blanco managed to pull off his first career stolen base.

Not that it mattered, because the Nationals went down quietly after that, coming out of the inning with nothing to show for it.

Given their decision to continue with a 10-man pitching staff for the time being, the last thing the Nationals needed was a short outing from their starter. Which is precisely what they got from Day, who was unceremoniously yanked by manager Frank Robinson with two outs in the fourth and the bases loaded.

The right-hander managed to escape unscathed through his first three laborious innings with a 2-0 lead intact. He couldn’t get out of his fourth.

Ricky Ledee started things off with a one-out double, scoring moments later on Jose Valentin’s single to right. After striking out No. 8 hitter Jason Phillips and getting ahead of pitcher Jeff Weaver 1-2, Day appeared poised to get out of the jam. But Weaver beat out a swinging bunt down the third-base line to extend the inning, and it was all downhill from there.

Day walked Izturis on five pitches to load the bases, then watched everyone move up a station when Choi laced an RBI single to right to make it 2-2.

That was all Robinson could stand. He pulled Day (sitting on 88 pitches) right then, called upon Jon Rauch to face J.D. Drew with the bases loaded and breathed a sigh of relief when the 6-foot-11 right-hander coaxed a harmless fly ball from the Dodgers’ No. 3 hitter.

Rauch wasn’t nearly so fortunate in the fifth. With two out and two on, Phillips tagged him for a double down the left-field line. Milton Bradley scored easily, but shortstop Guzman appeared to have Jose Valentin dead on arrival with a pinpoint relay throw to the plate. Valentin, though, knocked the ball out of catcher Brian Schneider’s glove, giving Los Angeles a 4-2 lead.

That the Nationals scored the game’s first two runs was cause for celebration in and of itself. A club that has struggled all season to score early in ballgames posted a run apiece in the second and third innings.

New left fielder Ryan Church, who received a pep talk from general manager Jim Bowden before the game, followed Jose Guillen’s leadoff double in the second with an RBI single to right.

One inning later, Brad Wilkerson and Nick Johnson produced back-to-back doubles, bringing the night’s second run home (not to mention snapping Wilkerson’s 0-for-20 slump at the plate).

The way they’ve struggled to score runs early this season, the Nationals certainly were happy to take what they got against Weaver. But the damage might have been more substantial if not for Guillen’s baserunning blunder in the fourth, when he was tagged out trying to advance from second on Vinny Castilla’s grounder to third.

Guillen’s mishap wound up costing Washington a run, because Schneider followed with a single to right — a hit that in all likelihood would have brought Guillen around to score … had he still been on base.

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