A month ago today, Matt Chico left spring training as one of the Washington Nationals' biggest surprises, with an overhauled delivery that gave his fastball more life and his breaking pitches more bite. The only glimpse of that pitcher the Nationals have seen in the regular season is now nearly three weeks old, and last night's 7-0 loss to the Chicago Cubs made that outing an even more distant memory.
Chico gave up five runs in four innings last night, running his ERA to 10.38 in the three starts since an eight-inning, one-run performance on April 11 against the Atlanta Braves. It combined with a Nationals offense that generated little against Cubs starter Carlos Zambrano to end a two-game winning streak and at least postpone the team's bid to win its first series since taking two out of three from the Philadelphia Phillies in the season's first week.
Save for one outing this season, Chico has struggled to go deep into games, mostly because he has left pitches in the strike zone and paid for it. That was the problem last night. The left-hander gave up five runs in the first two innings, mostly on pitches to the outer half of the plate.
"I'm trying to strike everybody out and trying to do way too much with my pitches," Chico said. "Last year, I felt like my slider was my go-to pitch, and this year I haven't had it. I'm trying to do too much with my slider, and it's just spinning right over the plate."
Reed Johnson, Ryan Theriot and Derrek Lee led off the game with three straight singles, the latter two scoring on Mark DeRosa's single to left field with one out.
The top of the Cubs' order punished Chico again in the second inning. Johnson and Theriot singled to start the inning, and both scored when Lee ripped a ball into the left-field corner.
He has now given up a combined 14 runs in the first and second innings of his six starts.
The outing continued a downward slide for Chico since his April 11 gem. He gave up five runs in five innings on April 16 against the Mets, and the Braves tagged him for six in four last Tuesday.
"That's the worst thing you can think as a pitcher, trying to strike people out," catcher Johnny Estrada said. "Nothing upon him, but he doesn't have the stuff to be striking people out. He's not an overpowering pitcher, so he has to use both sides of the plate and mix in his breaking stuff. If he did say that, that's surprising."
Chico's struggles call into question whether his time to turn it around could be running out. The Nationals sent Jason Bergmann to Class AAA Columbus after two poor starts and another disastrous appearance out of the bullpen. If Chico is removed from the rotation, it would mark the second major change in less than a month to what has been an otherwise steady group.
"I'm not saying I'm going to stick [with Chico] the whole season if he continues to pitch like this," manager Manny Acta said. "But it's only been a month. If we were going to make a month on guys that are struggling here, then there'd be a lot of guys out of here by now."
Meanwhile, Zambrano maneuvered through the Nationals' lineup without much problem. The big right-hander walked four batters and hit another, but moved his mid-90s fastball around, supplemented it with a slider and change-up and showed he was unafraid to attack Washington hitters.
He threw seven shutout innings, surrendered five hits and had just one runner reach third.
"He believes his fastball is overpowering and good enough to get you out," Estrada said. "He rarely pitches in patters. He's got good stuff, and he's not afraid."
In the seventh, Chad Cordero pitched for the first time since Dr. James Andrews did an enhanced MRI on his throwing shoulder last Tuesday. His fastball broke 85 mph just once, but his off-speed pitches were sharp enough to get two called strikeouts.
"Lack of velocity, again, but he was able to locate his pitches well" Acta said. "He still says he doesn't feel anything wrong with his arm, so I'm assuming he's fine."
But Cordero's progression toward the closer's role was a moot point last night in a game where it was clear early the Nationals wouldn't need one.
"The way our offense is going, not being able to score runs consistently, I think all our pitchers might be pressing," Estrada said. "You can't do that. We don't have the guys in our rotation to try to go out there and pitch shutouts."
SEEN AND HEARD AT NATIONALS PARK
Wily Mo Pena's World Series ring arrived yesterday from the Boston Red Sox, where he spent the first half of the 2007 season, and it didn't take long for the 2.33-carat ring to become the centerpiece of the Nationals' locker room.
Pena was invited to the Red Sox's home opener to receive his ring in person, but he was rehabbing his torn left oblique muscle in Florida.
"I hope we can get one here pretty quick," Pena said.
The left fielder said he would wear the ring "for a little bit, just to show it around." After that, he'll put the ring, valued around $10,000, in a safe place.
BY THE NUMBERS
14 Combined runs Matt Chico has given up in the first two innings of his six starts this season.
Nationals LHP John Lannan Record, ERA: 1-2, 3.42
Cubs LHP Ted Lilly Record, ERA: 1-3, 7.30
Time: 1:35 p.m. TV: MASN