- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 5, 2007

CHICAGO — Every day is a learning experience for the Washington Nationals. Manny Acta has known that since the day he took the job, and he knows it’s going to take time for his young team to make the transition into a contender.

The rookie manager just wishes there were more signs of progress along the way.

Take yesterday’s 6-4 loss to the Cubs, a game in which the Nationals’ offense exploded for four first-inning runs off ace Carlos Zambrano yet went silent the rest of the afternoon, all the while Chicago was chipping away to take and ultimately secure the lead.

As encouraged as Acta might have been over the early 4-0 lead, he just couldn’t remain positive over a wasted opportunity.

“In this game, you’re going to have to learn how to win even when you’re struggling at the plate or when you’re struggling on the mound,” he said. “There are games that teams win without having a two-hit shutout, and we just haven’t learned how to do that.”

The Nationals have been getting quality performances from their pitching staff for much of the last three weeks. When that didn’t happen yesterday — starter Jason Bergmann allowed four earned runs in six innings — the lineup didn’t do its part to pick the club up.

For the 10th straight game, Washington failed to score more than four runs. This team still hasn’t scored more than seven in any of its 29 games.

“It gets old,” right fielder Austin Kearns said. “We sit here and say we know we’re capable of doing it, but we’ve got to do it.”

The Nationals (9-20) looked poised to break out at the plate for the first time all season yesterday when they ransacked Zambrano during their first-inning splurge. Felipe Lopez led the game off with a triple and scored moments later on Ronnie Belliard’s groundout. Ryan Zimmerman walked and moved to third on Ryan Church’s double. Kearns then delivered the big blow: a three-run homer into the left-field bleachers at Wrigley Field that gave Washington a rare, early lead.

For only the third time this season, the Nationals had scored in the first inning. Four times, in fact.

But anyone who has ever set foot in this historic (and hitter-friendly) ballpark knows what Kearns does.

“You score four runs in Wrigley Field, that’s usually not going to cut it,” he said.

And it didn’t on this day, even with a cool breeze blowing in off Lake Michigan that kept balls from flying over the ivy-covered outfield walls.

The Cubs’ potent lineup started coming around the second time around the order against Bergmann. Derrek Lee clubbed a two-run homer to left in the third. Aramis Ramirez followed with a double and then came around to score when Zimmerman ruined a nice, diving stop of Michael Barrett’s grounder with a high throw to first.

Zimmerman’s seventh error of the year came on a play few third basemen would even have a chance to make, but it happened nevertheless and proved costly.

“I try to get every ball I can,” he said. “That’s the way I’ve been taught to play and that’s the way I’m going to keep [playing]. If I make 50 errors, I’m going to try to get every ball that I can.”

From there, things spiraled downward. Bergmann (0-3) gave up two more runs in the fourth on a walk, two doubles and a single, ending the right-hander’s surprising run of success (four straight quality starts).

“Maybe I needed a little different approach than I had,” he said. “I wanted to have them hit the ball short, nice and easy, and maybe I tried a little too hard with some pitches to get them over the plate and they didn’t have the results I wanted.”

Still, Bergmann’s less-than-spectacular outing could have been overcome had the Nationals taken down a rattled Zambrano (3-2) when they had the chance. The big right-hander allowed just three more hits after his disastrous first inning.

Washington couldn’t come through against the Chicago bullpen, either. Lopez couldn’t score from first on Zimmerman’s seventh-inning double, and both runners (plus Church) wound up stranded when reliever Bob Howry got Kearns to hit a hard grounder to short with two outs and the bases loaded.

One last rally in the ninth fell short when Zimmerman (representing the tying run) struck out swinging at a 3-2 fastball from Cubs closer Ryan Dempster, ending a frustrating afternoon for a Washington club that doesn’t seem to be making enough progress during a season of learning.

“You’ve just got to keep teaching these guys about not letting up,” Acta said. “How can you explain going out there with that approach against Zambrano in the first inning, working the count and scoring four runs, and then after that allowing him to just have some easy innings? Guys just completely forgot what they did in the first inning.”

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