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Nationals get better start, still finish poorly

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Though Jerome Williams became the first Washington Nationals starting pitcher to work past the fifth inning this season, he was outdone by the Arizona Diamondbacks starter who went five.

Right-hander Micah Owings, making his major league debut, and two relievers combined on a four-hitter to beat the Nationals 7-1 in front of 19,234 on a chilly night at RFK Stadium. Owings allowed one hit in five shutout innings with three walks and six strikeouts.

Nationals center fielder Ryan Church foiled Arizona's shutout bid with his second home run of the season with two outs in the ninth inning off reliever Juan Cruz.

"The offense wasn't there for us," Nationals manager Manny Acta said. "We couldn't put anything together. We couldn't do anything offensively; you've got to give credit to their kid."

The Nationals are now 1-4 on their season-opening homestand under first-year manager Manny Acta and have lost the first two of this four-game series. There wasn't much the Nationals could muster after Owings, Arizona's minor league pitcher of the year last season after compiling a 16-2 record with a 3.33 ERA in 27 starts between Class AA Tennessee and Class AAA Tucson, struck out four of the first six batters he faced.

The 24-year-old retired eight of the first nine batters and gave up only a line-drive single to Felipe Lopez in the third inning.

Williams was up to the challenge of matching Owings until the fourth inning, when the defense behind him began to unravel. The 25-year-old retired the first 10 batters he faced.

Alberto Callaspo broke up Williams' no-hitter with a one-out double in the fourth when he hit a grounder just inside the third-base bag that Ryan Zimmerman was unable to snag. With two outs and Callaspo on third, Chad Tracy smacked a long fly ball to right field. Nationals right fielder Austin Kearns ran back to the fence but mistimed his jump.

Tracy's ball hit off the middle of the fence when Kearns tried to make a short-arm catch. The ball caromed off the fence and rolled back into right-center field. Callaspo scored on the play, and Tracy ended up with a triple to give Arizona a 1-0 lead.

"I knew it was going to be close; I peeked back to see where the wall was, so I knew it was going to be right up there against it," Kearns said. "So I just tried to go up. I think I should have caught it, but I didn't. I definitely thought it was a ball I should have caught."

The next batter was Conor Jackson, who hit a routine grounder to Zimmerman at third. Zimmerman fielded the ball cleanly, but he threw a one-hopper to first that Dmitri Young was unable to scoop out of the dirt. Tracy scored on the throwing error, and the Diamondbacks led 2-0.

Williams, who allowed five runs (four earned) on six hits and two walks with four strikeouts in six innings, was signed by the Nationals in the offseason in hopes of returning to his form from 2004, when he went 10-7 with a 4.24 ERA in 22 starts for the San Francisco Giants. Williams looked the part until the sixth inning, when he grooved a belt-high fastball to Chris Young, who drilled a three-run shot above the visitors bullpen in left field for a 5-0 lead.

"I felt like I did pretty good, [but] two mistakes hurt me," Williams said. "That pitch to Tracy and that home run. Other than that, I felt like I threw the ball well."

The Nationals did get one opportunity in the fifth inning to score runs off Owings (1-0). Owings walked Church, hit Williams and walked left fielder Chris Snelling to load the bases with two outs and Zimmerman coming up. Owings threw an 88 mph fastball past Zimmerman to end the threat.

"I faced him back in college [when Owings was at Georgia Tech before transferring to Tulane], but he's gotten a lot better since then," Zimmerman said. "He pitched well. It's always tough the first time you see somebody. Especially when you have no video on him, no nothing, just scouting reports. It was a real bad pitch for me to swing at."

For the Nationals, Williams (0-1) was a positive in the loss. Until last night, only Shawn Hill had gone five innings in a start this season.

Nationals reliever Levale Speigner allowed two runs in the eighth inning after he walked the first two batters he faced. Jackson, who went 2-for-4 with a run scored, added an RBI single off Speigner. Young, who finished with four RBI, delivered a sacrifice fly to make it a 7-0 margin.

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