- The Washington Times - Monday, April 21, 2008

MIAMI — A lack of offense and an unsteady bullpen weren’t supposed to be the Washington Nationals’ problems. Starting pitching was the only thing keeping this club from improving on last season.

It’s too early to tell whether this current reality, where everything assumed about the Nationals turned out to be false, is permanent.

But games like yesterday’s 6-1 loss to the Florida Marlins are a case study in just about everything that’s going wrong for the Nationals right now — everything but starting pitching.

Odalis Perez gave up just one unearned run in six innings, but the Nationals didn’t get a hit until the fifth inning, gave up a homer to Hanley Ramirez in the seventh, left the tying run at third in the eighth and watched Ramirez blast another ball out of Dolphin Stadium to punctuate a fun-house scene in that same inning.

It cost them a chance to win their first series since they ran their record to 3-0 with back-to-back victories over Philadelphia, it sent them to Atlanta with a 5-14 record and their old nemesis Tim Hudson waiting for them, and it wasted another strong performance from a group of pitchers that couldn’t do much more.

Perez, John Lannan, Tim Redding and Shawn Hill have a combined 3.52 ERA the last four days — and they have one win to show for it.

“Our starters have been giving us enough innings and enough chances,” manager Manny Acta said. “But it’s not easy to win 1-0.”

That possibility went away in the first inning, when Ryan Zimmerman sailed a throw over Aaron Boone’s head at first that allowed Dan Uggla to take second base. Jeremy Hermida brought him in with a single. But while the Marlins got four more hits off Perez, only two came with less than two outs.

Perez had a chance to get his first win when Austin Kearns tied the game in the fifth inning with a leadoff homer to left, but that was the end of any meaningful offense for the Nationals. The next-best thing was Boone’s double off the left-field wall in the eighth, but Nick Johnson and Felipe Lopez struck out to end the inning.

“I’m as frustrated as anybody,” catcher Johnny Estrada said. “We’re just playing losing baseball right now, bottom line. We need to scratch and claw our way to some wins.”

That wasn’t happening yesterday. Instead, it was the Marlins who put the game away in an odd sequence in the eighth inning.

Saul Rivera, who gave up Wes Helms’s game-winning single on Saturday night, allowed a one-out double to Jorge Cantu. Then Lastings Milledge lost a fly ball in the sun, and it turned into a double for Cody Ross.

“I knew where it was going to land, but it was too late before I saw it again,” Milledge said.

Rivera even had a chance to escape, but after working Luis Gonzalez to an 0-2 count, he issued a two-out walk that brought Ramirez to the plate. Then things got weird.

He threw a fastball that sailed past Estrada, bounced off the backstop and went straight up in the air. Estrada caught it on the fly and flipped it underhand to Rivera. But Cantu collided with Rivera right as the ball arrived, and Ross came in as it skittered away.

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