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Nats stumble, then fall again

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 4, 2007

The pitching problems were expected. So were the offensive struggles.

The Washington Nationals, though, were not supposed to be fundamentally inept.

If nothing else, manager Manny Acta's team could be counted on to make routine plays in the field. To hit the right cutoff man. To cover the right base.

What, then, to make of last night's 9-3 loss to the Florida Marlins, in which the home team treated an RFK Stadium crowd of 20,894 to an assortment of fundamental follies that might have been humorous if they didn't happen at such inopportune moments?

"It's only two games," Acta said. "If we go play 10 games and I see this same result, then I'll get concerned. But it's only two games. We could go on a rampage starting tomorrow."

The Nationals will at least need to win today to avoid a season-opening sweep at the hands of their division rivals. The way they've played so far in losing the first two games by a combined score of 18-5, they might just settle for a close ballgame at this point.

On the heels of a disastrous Opening Day loss, Washington laid another egg, again digging itself into an early, insurmountable hole.

There wasn't one primary culprit last night, though a few Nationals seemed to find themselves in the middle of several plays that went wrong.

Josh Wilson, filling in for injured shortstop Cristian Guzman, committed one error and was unsuccessful on at least two other plays that could have been made in the field. First baseman Dmitri Young was charged with his own costly error when he booted a first-inning grounder that allowed two runs to score. Ray King failed to cover first on a potential double-play ball in the sixth and was promptly booed by the restless crowd.

"No excuse for it," the veteran lefty said of his brain cramp.

Oh, and no one covered second on Miguel Cabrera's seventh-inning double, the evening's final travesty.

"Regardless of whether it's errors or mental errors or whatever, you can't win a ballgame giving up nine runs," King said. "We as a staff have to set the tone early, put a zero up and give our hitters a chance to put us on top instead of us being behind."

Any hope of a positive start that might cleanse the palate from the Opening Day fiasco was quashed four batters into the first, by which point the Nationals already trailed 2-0 despite not giving up a hit.

How is that possible? Start with a game-opening hit-by-pitch. Add a fielder's choice in which the shortstop (Wilson) throws the ball away trying to toss it directly from his glove. Walk the No. 3 hitter to load the bases. Then watch as the first baseman (Young) boots a hard hopper to his right for an error, with two men coming around to score.

Through it all, starter Shawn Hill tried to remain calm. The right-hander couldn't get out of the first inning without suffering any more damage, surrendering a groundball single to Josh Willingham and a two-run base hit up the middle to Miguel Olivo that made it 4-0.

"[The defensive mistakes are] always disheartening, but it's my job when errors happen to bear down and get another groundball," Hill said. "Instead, I gave up a base hit and they scored two. If I get another groundball, it's a double play and we're out of it. It's not just on the fielders. I've got to do my job, too."

As it was, Hill's outing was essentially ruined after one inning. He needed 36 pitches to make it through that first inning, and despite a workmanlike effort from then on, the right-hander was pulled after only five innings and 80 pitches. He gave up four earned runs.

Not that Washington's offense did much to support the starter's cause. For the second straight day, the Nationals failed to string together any rallies of consequence and often had poor at-bats.

Florida left-hander Scott Olsen put the leadoff man on base three times in the game's first four innings. Yet the Nationals couldn't advance the runner once. Felipe Lopez led off the first with a single and remained there when rookie Kory Casto flied out on the first pitch of his career. Wilson drew a leadoff walk in the third, but Hill followed by popping up a sacrifice bunt attempt. Casto singled to open the fourth, but was quickly thrown out on Ryan Zimmerman's forceout.

Washington finally broke through in the sixth, when Olsen walked the bases loaded with one out and was removed by manager Fredi Gonzalez. Young drew a bases-loaded walk off left-hander Renyel Pinto, and Brian Schneider added a sacrifice fly to make it 6-2, but the rally fizzled. Ryan Church fouled out to the catcher, ending the inning and adding another frustrating moment to a two-day-old season that already has had too many of them.

"We've just got to keep working," Acta said. "I think we'll get better at it."

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