- The Washington Times - Monday, August 28, 2006

ATLANTA — They showered, dressed and left Turner Field without saying much. It’s not like there’s anything left to say.

The Washington Nationals just completed a brutal road trip, one that featured almost daily poundings at the hands of the Philadelphia Phillies, Florida Marlins and Atlanta Braves. By the end of yesterday’s 13-6 loss to the Braves, manager Frank Robinson’s team looked moribund and resigned to its fate.

The Nationals finished 2-7 on the trip, losing seven of the last eight to fall to a season-worst 20 games under .500 (55-75). Worse, they seemed to play the same ballgame every day, cringing as their starting pitcher imploded and left them staring at big early deficits.

In the last eight games, Washington’s starters went 0-6 with a 13.98 ERA and failed to make it out of the third inning five times.

“When you look up and we have to score 10 to 12 runs to win, we’re not going to win too many like that,” Robinson said. “It’s just tough to dig yourself out of a hole every day.”

The Nationals found themselves in yet another deep hole yesterday, trailing 8-4 after three innings and 11-4 after four. The primary culprit was Billy Traber, who gave up eight earned runs in only 22/3 innings, though the left-hander wasn’t entirely to blame.

Washington’s defense didn’t exactly help Traber out, failing to make three plays in a six-run third that technically weren’t errors but could have been made.

Daryle Ward, filling in at first base while Nick Johnson recovers from Saturday’s collision with Jeff Francoeur, made a lunging stop of Tony Pena Jr.’s third-inning grounder but then bobbled the ball and was unable to make an easy throw to the bag.

Two batters later, Ryan Church took a bad angle on Edgar Renteria’s drive to center and watched as the ball sailed over his head for a two-run double. (Church said later he had a hard time all afternoon picking up the ball in the sun.)

Then, with two outs and the Nationals having a chance to get out of the inning without further damage, Atlanta catcher Brian McCann blooped a ball down the third-base line. Three Nationals went after it, with shortstop Henry Mateo (filling in for starter Felipe Lopez) coming closest before the ball fell in for a double that prolonged the inning and set up Adam LaRoche’s subsequent three-run double.

“There were three plays that I know of that could have been made behind [Traber], but they weren’t made,” Robinson said. “To me, those are plays that should be made and have to be made behind your pitchers.”

Traber (3-3) was diplomatic about his lack of defensive help, taking the blame for a poor outing.

“We just didn’t pitch very well today,” he said. “I’m sorry, let me rephrase that. I didn’t pitch very well today.”

Traber entered the game as perhaps the Nationals’ most-reliable starter, which says more about the wretched state of the rotation than his own performance. Still, the left-hander takes pride in his ability to pitch deep into games, so he was particularly miffed at himself for failing to make it out of the third inning and putting even more strain on an overworked bullpen.

“Obviously, I’m aware of how much we’ve leaned on that pen,” he said. “It’s disappointing for me not to be able to go out there and go deep into the ballgame. Just like any bad performance would be. But it would be nice to pick those guys up.”

Traber actually took the mound in the bottom of the first with a 3-0 lead, thanks to a single and three doubles from his offensive mates. But the Nationals’ three-run lead quickly devolved into an eight-run deficit, and they simply didn’t have enough energy left to mount a huge comeback.

On many days, six runs and 12 hits would have been enough. On this day, it wasn’t even close.

“That’s just how it comes,” Church said. “You have nights where the pitching’s on but the hitting’s not. It comes and goes. We just have to keep going out there and battling and try to score as many runs as we can to win the game. Pitchers are going to have off nights. That’s where we have to take it upon ourselves as hitters. If they give up three, let’s try to get a crooked number ourselves.”

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