- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 10, 2007

MILWAUKEE — As the losses pile up, the hits refuse to fall and golden opportunity after golden opportunity is wasted, the Washington Nationals no longer sound upset or frustrated. Instead they’re incredulous over the series of unfortunate events that have occurred during the most trying season of their respective careers.

“I don’t think you can do this for six months,” right fielder Austin Kearns said half-definitively, half-skeptically.

Common sense says the Nationals have to snap out of this funk. No team is this bad, right?

Then again, facts are facts, and after yesterday’s 3-1 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers, this ballclub staggered home from a brutal trip that tested everyone physically and mentally.

What began 10 days ago in San Diego with an encouraging 3-2 win ended yesterday with Washington’s eighth straight loss. Manager Manny Acta’s squad couldn’t get anything going offensively for the umpteenth time, wasted another brilliant pitching performance from Jason Bergmann and boarded its charter flight to the District with a 9-25 record that’s almost hard to comprehend.

“The record shows what it is,” catcher Brian Schneider.

What the record doesn’t show is how the Nationals lost all these games. Unlike their 1-8 stretch to open the season, when they were getting blown out just about every night, they’re now doing just enough to lose. Or not quite enough to win.

Seven of these last eight losses were by three runs or less. Five of them were by two runs or less.

The pattern was simple: The Nationals would get a solid pitching performance, get a couple of hits but fail to come through with that one clutch at-bat, key pitch or crucial defensive play to swing tight ballgames in their favor.

“To me, it’s encouraging,” Acta said. “Yes, you can look up our [won-loss record] and make every type of negative, sarcastic comment about us. But we haven’t been blown out of games since the first week of the season. Every game we’ve been there.”

Including yesterday’s matinee before 24,658 at Miller Park — a tense pitching duel that saw Bergmann and ex-teammate Claudio Vargas go toe-to-toe for six standout innings.

Vargas, who was released by the Nationals after posting a 9.24 ERA over four starts in 2005, extended his current resurgence. The 28-year-old right-hander allowed four hits and two walks over his six innings and made just one mistake: a 3-1 pitch to Felipe Lopez in the sixth that Washington’s leadoff hitter clubbed to center field for his second solo homer in less than 24 hours.

But as so often was the case on the trip, that was the extent of the Nationals’ offense. They finished the afternoon with only four singles to go along with Lopez’s homer, and they were retired in order five times in nine innings.

“It’s not like we get that many opportunities,” said Kearns, who popped out with two on in the sixth. “We’re getting one or two shots a game, and when you don’t get it done, that’s probably the most upsetting thing.”

Especially when Washington continues to get stellar performances from its starting pitchers. Bergmann authored the latest unlikely gem yesterday, allowing one run on two hits in six innings yet once again walked away with nothing to show for it.

Bergmann has a 3.07 ERA in seven outings. He’s given up one earned run or less in four of them. And he remains winless. But the 25-year-old right-hander refuses to get down on himself.

“I’m really not concerned with wins,” he insisted. But the rest of the Nationals are starting for feel for him and his rotation mates.

“I’m very proud of our starters,” Acta said. “Despite what we’re going through right now, they’re giving us a chance almost on an everyday basis. These were kids that not too many people were expecting anything out of them, and they’ve done good so far. It’s still early, but I’m very proud of them.”

Bergmann’s lone mistake yesterday came when he shook off Schneider’s suggestion for an 0-2 slider to Geoff Jenkins and wound up grooving a fastball down the middle. Jenkins drove it to center for a solo homer.

Bergmann threw only 79 pitches and easily could have gone longer, but Acta decided he had to look for some offense, so he sent up three straight pinch-hitters in the seventh: Ronnie Belliard, Tony Batista and Nook Logan. None got the ball out of the infield.

Washington’s bullpen then allowed the tie-breaking runs in the eighth, with lefty Micah Bowie (0-2) giving up a single to Prince Fielder and right-hander Jesus Colome yielding singles to Bill Hall and Jenkins and then uncorking a wild pitch to bring home another run.

Thus ended another frustrating day for the Nationals. They might be playing better baseball, but it’s tough to find positives from a 1-8 road trip.

“You can’t feel better about coming out 1-8,” Schneider said. “You can’t feel good about yourself. You can’t feel good about the team, no.”

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