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Nats hit new low, fall to Braves

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 27, 2007

ATLANTA — The following statement would have sounded ludicrous as recently as a month ago, but given what has transpired since then, it's sounding more and more legitimate.

The Washington Nationals really miss Cristian Guzman's bat.

Yes, the favorite whipping boy of Nationals fans for more than two seasons had become such a force atop the club's lineup that his absence the last two nights has had a significant and debilitating effect.

Since early May, manager Manny Acta knew he could count on Guzman and Dmitri Young to show up day in and day out and help provide some punch to a lineup that features several struggling starters.

But now with his .329-hitting shortstop out for the season after surgery to repair a torn thumb ligament, Acta must find offensive production from other sources. And so far, he hasn't been able to turn to anyone to fill the void.

For the second straight day, the Nationals were rendered helpless by the Atlanta Braves. Last night's 6-2 loss came on the heels of a 4-1 loss at Turner Field, a pair of frustrating losses for a team that could desperately use an offensive breakout from someone in the lineup.

"Bad. We need it bad," Acta said. "We're not hiding the fact that we're next to last in hitting, last in runs, last in home runs. We know that runs are not easy to come by for us. We have to grind it out and hope a couple of guys can get hot and help them out."

To date, no Nationals have. Aside from Young (who ranks third in the league with a .342 batting average) and Ronnie Belliard (who is hitting .295 in limited playing time), every other position player is hitting .260 or worse.

Felipe Lopez is batting .237 with a .287 on-base percentage. Austin Kearns is hitting .254 and is on pace to finish the season with 11 homers and 55 RBI. Ryan Church's batting average has dropped to .260, and he has driven in nine runs in his last 24 games. Even Ryan Zimmerman, who leads the team with 12 homers and 42 RBI, is hitting .247 with a .298 on-base percentage that ranks 77th among National League regulars.

"We all need to pick it up," Kearns said. "Dmitri and Guzy have been carrying us. I'm sure there are a lot of us in the lineup that feel like we need to do better, and we do."

Last night's loss had to be particularly tough for the Nationals because it came at the hands of Buddy Carlyle, an otherwise nondescript 29-year-old right-hander who has bounced around for eight years and entered last night's start with two career wins.

So what did the Nationals (32-45) manage to do offensively against Carlyle? One run and five hits in seven innings.

Not that they didn't have an opportunity to jump on him in the first inning before running themselves into an unlikely double play.

With one out and runners on first and second, Young lined a single to left. Lopez scampered around third and headed home but was gunned down by left fielder Matt Diaz. Seeing the play develop in front of him on the bases, Zimmerman then tried to advance to third on the throw home. Catcher Brian McCann, though, fired a strike to Chipper Jones, who applied the tag just in time to nail a disconsolate Zimmerman.

"I shouldn't take the chance right there," Zimmerman said. "It shouldn't be that close. I should have just stayed at second and let one of the other guys hit me in."

The continued lack of offense made life all the more difficult for starter Mike Bacsik, who again was done in by a few crucial mistakes and suffered his fifth consecutive loss.

Bacsik's mistakes last night all resulted in home runs — two solo shots by Jarrod Saltalamacchia and a three-run homer by Andruw Jones.

His costliest gaffe was a 3-1 change-up to Jones in the fifth. Atlanta's perennial All-Star center fielder had been in perhaps the worst slump of his career, with a batting average that dipped below .200 and no extra-base hits in nearly three weeks.

Knowing Jones' weakness for breaking balls, the Nationals have been trying to get him out on almost nothing but offspeed pitches. But that only works when those pitches are located well. Bacsik (1-5) couldn't do that this time. His 80 mph offering sat right over the heart of the plate, and Jones tattooed it deep to left for a three-run homer that provoked the crowd of 22,508 into a loud and lengthy ovation.

"I'm going to have a sleepless night tonight," Bacsik said. "I'm pretty frustrated with what happened. I was throwing the ball good, and in a five-minute span, 10 to 15 pitches, you lose the game. I lost the game for us tonight. I didn't give us a chance to win."