- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 9, 2007

MILWAUKEE — Losing takes its toll on different players in different ways. Some get mad, some get depressed, some look for a glimmer of positive developments in an otherwise dreary setting.

All of those emotions are circling through the Washington Nationals clubhouse these days. Everyone in uniform has had ample opportunity to think about how losing affects them because this team is losing at an astounding rate.

Last night’s 6-4 defeat by the Milwaukee Brewers was the Nationals’ seventh straight. As they prepare to finish off a difficult, nine-game road trip this afternoon at Miller Park, Washington finds itself with a 9-24 record that isn’t just the worst in the majors. It’s again bordering on historic levels of futility.

At this rate of failure (a .273 winning percentage), the Nationals are on course to lose 118 games this season.

“We know our situation here,” veteran Robert Fick said. “And we know that we’re going to take our lumps.”

The Nationals haven’t enjoyed on-field high-fives since a 3-2 win in San Diego eight days ago, and they still haven’t scored more than four runs since April 22 (a span of 14 games).

So even on a night that featured a few positive developments — Felipe Lopez’s leadoff homer, Jason Simontacchi’s solid season debut, a late rally to make things close — it was hard for some to take satisfaction in individual performances.

“It’s frustrating,” Lopez said. “I hate losing. Everybody does. It’s not fun, even if you’re doing good. When you’re a team player, who cares about the All-Star and all that [garbage]? If you’re losing, it doesn’t really matter.”

This prolonged stretch of ineptitude seems to have affected Washington’s position players more than its pitchers. Truth be told, this staff has performed quite well given the situation, and Simontacchi was no exception last night.

The journeyman right-hander was ecstatic just to be back in the major leagues after a three-year absence. He hadn’t appeared in a big league game since the final day of the 2004 season with the St. Louis Cardinals and needed to take a long and winding road just to get back.

Simontacchi hurt his right shoulder during that last season in St. Louis, tearing his labrum, and he missed all of 2005 while recovering from surgery. When no major league club was willing to take a chance on him last year, he swallowed his pride and joined the independent Bridgeport Bluefish of the Atlantic League, then showcased himself last winter pitching for Estrellas in the Dominican League.

The Nationals noticed and offered Simontacchi a minor league contract with an opportunity to make the club out of spring training. Based on performance alone, he would have been at RFK Stadium on Opening Day, but a strained groin muscle suffered the final week of camp delayed his debut more than a month.

Still, the 33-year-old couldn’t mask his enthusiasm yesterday.

“I was pretty excited to be back up here,” he said, “living the dream we were trying to get to when we were kids.”

Simontacchi (0-1) did exactly what he was asked: throw strikes and make his defense work. For five innings, the right-hander excelled at that, allowing only Johnny Estrada’s RBI double in the second.

But he ran into trouble in the sixth, putting men on second and third with nobody out and Prince Fielder coming to the plate. Simontacchi quickly got ahead of the young slugger with a pair of changeups, then wasted a high fastball to run the count to 1-2. Then he tried to do what several other pitchers have: bust Fielder in with a high-and-tight fastball.

Simontacchi’s pitch tailed back over the plate, and Fielder had no trouble connecting on the belt-high offering. He sent it screaming over the right-field fence for the tiebreaking three-run homer.

“I don’t think the plan to go in [on Fielder] is the best thing,” manager Manny Acta said. “If you jam him, he’s going to drive the run in and move the other guy to third base with less than two outs. So it was just a mistake. But stuff happens.”

The Nationals tried to make up the deficit and managed to draw within a run when Ryan Langerhans lofted a seventh-inning sacrifice fly and Lopez followed with an RBI double. But Milwaukee’s J.J. Hardy and Johnny Estrada answered with eighth-inning home runs, and Washington’s ninth-inning rally attempts were thwarted.

Thus, the Nationals’ clubhouse was again silent late last night, as players quietly showered and dressed and went back to their hotel to contemplate one more loss in a growing string of them.

“It’s just going to take an outstanding pitching performance for us to win the way we’re scoring runs right now,” Acta said. “I think that’s way too much pressure for our pitching staff.”

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