- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Had Manny Acta been informed before last night’s game that he would receive five quality innings out of fill-in starter Tim Redding, the Washington Nationals manager surely would have taken it with open arms.

Then again, it wouldn’t have mattered whether Roger Clemens was toeing the rubber for Acta at RFK Stadium. The Nationals‘ lethargic lineup still wouldn’t have produced enough hits to pull off a victory.

Again stuck in neutral at the plate, Washington put up little fight against Chicago Cubs ace Carlos Zambrano and slogged its way through a 3-1 loss before an energetic crowd of 30,106 at RFK Stadium that couldn’t coax the home team to a win.

Nothing seems to be able to snap the Nationals (33-50) out of the stultifying miasma they have found themselves in for nearly two weeks. Acta’s team, which was riding high not long ago, has lost seven of eight and 13 of 17 with little hope of a breakout in sight.

Why? Because Washington’s offense has gone silent. In the last 13 games, the Nationals have scored 28 runs while batting a collective .232.

“Eventually, it’s got to stop,” shortstop Felipe Lopez said.

Common sense says it must, but little about the Nationals‘ prolonged slump has made sense. Time and again, Acta’s squad gives itself a chance to break out and inevitably falls one clutch hit short.

“I’m not even asking for a three-run homer,” Acta said. “We can get a three-run double, like when we had the bases loaded. That’s what we needed today. We just haven’t been able to get that hit with guys on the bases. There’s only so much you can do.”

The lack of offensive production has put a strain on a starting rotation that already has been put in a tough spot. With reliable Micah Bowie now on the disabled list, Washington’s starting five consists of Jason Bergmann, Matt Chico, Jason Simontacchi, Mike Bacsik and Redding — the latest addition to a makeshift staff.

The Nationals didn’t know quite what to expect from Redding in his first major league outing in two years. The right-hander was hardly dominating at Class AAA Columbus, going 9-5 with a 5.32 ERA, and the only reason he got the call over prospects like John Lannan and Joel Hanrahan was because he was scheduled to pitch yesterday.

“I was shocked, actually [to get the call],” he said.

Still, Redding did about as much as could have been asked of him, overcoming a shaky start to keep his team in the game. He found himself trailing 1-0 two batters into the first inning after surrendering a single to Alfonso Soriano (who stole second) and then another single to Ryan Theriot.

Redding ran into trouble again in the third, loading the bases for Cliff Floyd and then allowing a two-run single to the Chicago cleanup hitter but responded by retiring eight straight before being pulled for a pinch-hitter.

“I think he did a decent job for us,” Acta said. “Would I liked to have had five scoreless innings? Yeah, everybody would. But he controlled the damage and kept us in the game and gave us a chance.”

Redding’s final line — three runs in five innings — was perfectly acceptable for someone thrown into his situation. Unfortunately, it wasn’t nearly enough to overcome the Nationals‘ putrid offense.

Stuck in a rut for nearly two weeks now, Washington showed no new signs of life last night against the dynamic Zambrano, who earned his league-leading 10th win of the season with 62/3 innings of three-hit, eight-strikeout ball.

The Nationals, who last scored more than four runs June 18, didn’t seriously threaten to score off Zambrano until the fifth. They put their first two men on with the pitcher’s spot due up and a tough decision awaiting.

Acta perhaps could have left Redding in to drop a sacrifice bunt, but the rookie manager is not a fan of that kind of small-ball philosophy, so he instead sent up pinch-hitter Tony Batista to swing away. Batista promptly popped up to the shortstop on the first pitch he saw.

“I wanted somebody there who could hit an extra-base [hit] or perhaps a home run or something,” Acta said. “I’m not in a position to be giving outs away, the way we’re swinging the bats right now, after the fifth inning.”

Though Ryan Langerhans followed with a walk and Ronnie Belliard drove in a run with a sacrifice fly, the Nationals clearly didn’t make the most of the opportunity. Ryan Zimmerman popped up with two outs and two on, and that killed the rally.

About an hour later, Acta strolled through a silent clubhouse and tried to ease his downtrodden players’ worries. In an upbeat manner, he told the players they have a chance to come back today and get a win.

It may not sound like much, but at this point a little positive reinforcement is all the manager can offer.

“It goes a long way. It really does,” catcher Brian Schneider said. “The last thing you want is for guys to get down and not want to come to the ballpark the next day.”

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