- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Things were supposed to get better. Three of the Washington Nationals‘ best hitters had returned from injury, and though Manny Acta didn’t have his entire Opening Night lineup back together, the manager at least could turn in a more imposing card to the plate umpire.

How, then, to explain the way the Nationals’ lackluster offense has gotten worse in the last week?

It doesn’t matter that Ryan Zimmerman, Austin Kearns and Lastings Milledge are in uniform again. As Tuesday night’s 2-1 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies revealed, no one wearing a Nationals jersey these days can produce a big hit.

“We don’t use any excuses,” said Zimmerman, who contributed to Washington’s seventh-straight loss with a major baserunning blunder. “We’re all back, and we feel like we should be playing better.”

The Nationals are 0-3 since Milledge returned from a strained groin and 0-7 since Zimmerman returned from a small tear in his left shoulder.

“We’re professional athletes. When we get off the DL, we have to produce,” said Milledge, 2-for-13 since coming back. “I feel like anybody called on - Zimmerman, myself or Kearns - we have to step in here and get the job done as soon as we get activated.”

Washington’s latest loss produced one thrilling moment for the crowd. The home team scored a run for the first time in 27 innings on Willie Harris’ eighth-inning groundout.

That was the longest scoring drought since the Nationals arrived in town and was only five shy of the franchise record of 32 set by the 1972 Expos. Over its last five games, Washington has scored three runs and amassed 20 hits.

Much as they tried not to think about the fact they hadn’t scored since Friday night in Los Angeles, some players tried to force the issue and made matters worse in the process.

The grossest example of that came from Zimmerman, who ran himself into an out to end the seventh inning.

Standing on first with two outs, Zimmerman watched as Milledge rapped a hard grounder to third. Eric Bruntlett, just inserted as a defensive replacement, couldn’t handle the play and deflected the ball to his left.

Shortstop Jimmy Rollins ran over to pick it up, but then he bobbled it. At this point, Zimmerman had rounded second and decided to bolt for an uncovered third base.

“I looked over at third and saw no one there and just thought it would be a good idea to try to go over,” he said.

Big mistake. Zimmerman realized he couldn’t make it, and by the time he slammed on the brakes and slid back into second, Bruntlett had retrieved the ball and thrown him out.

The pro-Phillies portion of the crowd roared with approval as the rest of the bunch booed the inning-ending baserunning blunder.

“It was just a dumb mistake,” Zimmerman said. “You can’t let that kind of stuff happen there.”

“I don’t think he’s going to try it again,” said Acta, who had a long talk with his young third baseman in the dugout following the play.

The lack of offense overshadowed an impressive performance by Collin Balester. The right-hander’s fifth career start was his best and longest since a one-hit debut at Florida on July 1. Over six innings, he allowed two runs, six hits and no walks.

Balester’s most costly mistake came in the third, when National League MVP candidate Chase Utley tagged a 1-0 fastball into the right-field bleachers for a two-run homer and a 2-0 Phillies lead. Otherwise, the 22-year-old remained in control, allowing three other singles but never putting himself in a real jam.

“I’m just trying to learn as much as I can this year so I can - maybe by the end of this year - start to be really good instead of just going out there and not knowing what you’re going to get,” he said.

Of course, even the most positive of pitching performances these days doesn’t count for much because the Nationals can’t offer their starters much run support.

“We try our best, man,” Milledge said. “You know, we’ve just been coming up short. … It’s tough man. It’s real tough.”

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