As impressive as their recent resurgence has been, the Washington Nationals have known all along one dirty little secret: Most of these wins have come against lesser competition.
So while optimism was high when the Nationals returned to RFK Stadium last night for the start of a nine-game homestand, deep down manager Manny Acta's team knew it faced a far more difficult challenge in the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres.
These two West Coast powers are in a different class than Washington, a pair of postseason contenders capable of dominating the Nationals.
The Dodgers dismantled the Nationals 10-0 last night, outslugging, outpitching and outperforming the home team. After this reality check, Acta's bunch only can hope this wasn't a sign of things to come this week, though it certainly isn't out of the realm of possibility.
"L.A.'s good. San Diego's good," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "They have quality arms they're going to run out there every day. So we're really going to have to stick with our game plan and battle, and we're going to have to beat some good pitchers. It'll be a good test, but I think we can do it."
They couldn't come close to doing it last night. While Washington (21-31) showed last week it could hold its own against the dregs of the NL -- St. Louis, Cincinnati -- it really can't match up with a team like Los Angeles (30-21).
The Dodgers' lineup has gone through some ups and downs this season, but when it's on, it's capable of causing some significant damage.
So it was that Los Angeles, buoyed by leadoff hitter Juan Pierre's career night (4-for-5 with three doubles and a triple), busted out against Nationals starter Jason Simontacchi, who gave up six runs and 11 hits in 61/3 innings.
"Against a team that's clicking like that and you leave the ball up [in the strike zone]? I mean, you're going to be turning some heads, and some guys are going to be running," Simontacchi said.
The right-hander's final line was a bit misleading because he made it through six innings having allowed just three runs. But things fell apart in a six-run seventh that broke the game wide open.
"I thought his outing was better than the numbers will show in the box score," Acta said.
Simontacchi (2-3) laughed after hearing his manager's assessment.
"The numbers ain't gonna lie," he said. "I must have not done that good."
The key moment in that seventh inning actually came after Simontacchi was removed with the bases loaded and one out. Reliever Winston Abreu surrendered a hopper in between the mound and third base, and Zimmerman came charging in to retrieve the ball.
Instead of getting the easy out at first base, though, he tried to make a spinning, off-balance throw to nail opposing pitcher Brad Penny at the plate. The throw sailed to the backstop and two runs wound up scoring.
"If I make a good throw, we get him and now you've got two outs with the bases loaded," Zimmerman said. "I was trying to do what I could to limit the damage. I just didn't make a good throw."
Two batters later, Luis Gonzalez belted a three-run homer, and the rout was on.
Not that the Nationals were going to mount a rally against Penny, who sliced and diced his way through the Washington lineup with the precision of a master. The right-hander (7-1) allowed only four singles in his 61/3 innings, permitting just one man to get past first base while lowering his ERA to 2.06.
"That's probably as good as I've seen him pitch since I've been facing him, and I've been seeing him a lot," catcher Brian Schneider said. "He wasn't just throwing tonight; he was pitching."
Penny blew the Nationals away with a mid-90s fastball, but he was equally effective mixing in curveballs and split-finger fastballs in any situation.
"Dominant," Acta said. "Command of every one of his pitches, and they are above average pitches, every one of them. So when he has command of them, regardless of who you are, no chance. We had no chance."
Acta was speaking strictly about last night's game, but might the same apply the rest of this week? The Dodgers send another potentially dominant right-hander to the mound tonight in Derek Lowe, and Padres ace Jake Peavy (perhaps the best pitcher in the game so far this season) awaits Friday.
Suddenly, the Nationals and their 12 wins in 17 games don't look quite as imposing. Not after a thrashing like they suffered last night.
"It's just a game," Acta insisted. "Over. Tomorrow we're starting another one. ... It's not like football where we have to wait for six days suffering over a loss. So back at it maana."
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