- The Washington Times - Monday, August 20, 2007

There is no need to over-analyze the Washington Nationals’ just-completed homestand. After dropping two of three to the Philadelphia Phillies and then getting swept in three games by the New York Mets, the Nationals only could concede what they probably already knew.

“We just got outplayed by a better team,” manager Manny Acta said. “That’s it. There’s no luck involved in this. That’s why [the Mets] won the division last year, and that’s why they’re in first place right now. They’re a good club. We gave them a battle, but we got outplayed.”

That’s a perfect description of yesterday’s 8-2 loss at RFK Stadium in which the Nationals hung tough for seven innings before the Mets scored six late runs.

What started as a pitchers’ duel between Shawn Hill and Orlando Hernandez turned into a rout by afternoon’s end, with New York scoring four runs off Jon Rauch in the eighth and two more off Chris Schroder in the ninth.

“When you get into certain counts and don’t execute, a team like that’s going to hurt you,” said Rauch, who loaded the bases with none out and then gave up a two-run single by Shawn Green and a two-run double by Marlon Anderson.

The Nationals came into this homestand as one of the majors’ surprise clubs and full of confidence. Acta, though, was curious how his young team would respond to six games against the top two teams in the National League East, a couple of teams in the thick of a pennant race that needed to take care of business against their last-place counterparts.

By the end of a 1-5 week, the Nationals (55-69) might have realized just how far they have to go to compete with the big boys.

“They came to play,” first baseman Robert Fick said. “They took it to us. It was a rough homestand.”

There were some bright spots. Despite the final outcome each night, Washington played solid baseball for the most part, suffering a pair of one-run losses to the Phillies before looking a little more overmatched against the Mets.

And, if nothing else, the Nationals came out of the week assured that Hill is back in top form after missing three months with injuries to his left shoulder and right elbow. The right-hander and presumptive ace of the staff tossed six shutout innings Tuesday against Philadelphia and followed that yesterday with seven innings of two-run ball. The 26-year-old hurler still hasn’t allowed more than three earned runs in any of his 10 starts this season.

But ever the perfectionist, Hill was less than satisfied with yesterday’s outing, in which he gave up seven hits and issued two walks.

“It took me way too long to find a comfort zone,” he said. “The last couple innings, I finally started to settle down and put the ball where I wanted to. … If I could do that a little earlier, I could avoid some of those hard-hit balls.”

The Nationals had only one really hard-hit ball yesterday off Mets starter Orlando Hernandez (8-4), but what a shot it was. Wily Mo Pena, making his second start since his acquisition from the Boston Red Sox, launched his first home run in a Nationals uniform. The 25-year-old slugger hit a solo shot off the facing of the upper deck in left-center field in the fourth inning, one of the best-hit balls by anyone in the three seasons since baseball returned to RFK.

Pena, who started in right field and had a few adventures out there, also struck out twice. It’s a tradeoff the Nationals are willing to make for a slugger the likes of which they haven’t had.

“He’s a game-changer,” Fick said. “We don’t really have anybody in our lineup that has power like that.”

But power only makes so much difference. Pena’s homer was Washington’s last hit of the day as Hernandez rediscovered his groove and relievers Jorge Sosa and Pedro Feliciano finished things off.

Thus, the Nationals dressed quietly in their clubhouse, packed their bags and prepared to leave for their longest road trip of the season. They will play four games against the struggling Houston Astros this week before three games each against National League West contenders Colorado and Los Angeles.

It doesn’t get any easier down the stretch. Twenty-five of Washington’s final 38 games come against teams still fighting for playoff berths, including 12 more against the Phillies and Mets.

If they want to affect the outcome of those races, they surely will have to perform better than they did over the last week.

“We’ve got a chance to be difference-makers in the wild card and the division races,” Fick said. “Last year we took it to the Phillies pretty good at the end of the season. Hopefully, we can do the same.”

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