Even in defeat, the Washington Nationals lately had been trying to tout more positives than negatives. General manager Jim Bowden even went so far yesterday afternoon to insist his team is in a pennant race despite its last-place standing, the 6½ games it trailed division-leading Florida and the four games standing between it and the fourth-place New York Mets.
That, of course, was before the Nationals went out and stunk up their new ballpark with perhaps their worst showing of the season, a 12-2 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies that had a crowd of 28,055 collectively groaning and booing before many headed to the exits well before the final out was recorded.
There were no positives for Washington to point to following this one, nothing to suggest things are better than they seem and that this team is on the verge of a breakthrough.
No, all the Nationals Park audience saw on a rainy evening was another substandard outing from left-hander Matt Chico (four runs allowed in five innings), another abysmal night at the plate for Washington's meek-hitting outfield and a complete meltdown during an eight-run sixth inning that would have been laughable had it not been so embarrassing.
"Sometimes you don't want to see that kind of inning that we had over there when we gave up the eight runs," manager Manny Acta said. "But that's part of the game. We played a 1-0 ballgame [Tuesday] night that we had a chance to win, and then we go out and get blown away in one inning today."
The most pertinent development to emerge from the game was Chico's inability to take advantage of what might have been his last chance to start for the Nationals. Banished to the bullpen two weeks ago with an 0-5 record, the 24-year-old was inserted back into the rotation last night to sub for Shawn Hill while the latter recovers from a cortisone shot in his ailing right elbow.
Team officials tried to downplay the importance of the outing for Chico entering the game, but his ensuing performance (in which he was roughed up for seven hits, including three solo homers) gives the Nationals little reason to offer him another chance to start.
In 11 games now, eight of them starts, Chico is 0-6 with a 6.19 ERA. He has put 81 men on base over 48 innings, though he emerged last night feeling more encouraged than in previous outings because he avoided the temptation to put too much pressure on himself to perform.
"That's what I was doing before," he said. "This one I just really tried to relax, and I felt more relaxed than the other ones. I wasn't pressing at all."
Chico would have helped his cause, though, had he been able to keep the ball in the park instead of serving up three homers, including a towering shot by Ryan Howard on a hanging 0-2 slider in the fifth. The first of Howard's two homers in the game landed in the second deck high above the right-center field fence, the first ball to reach such heights since Nationals Park opened.
"The pitch that kind of sucked the energy out of us was that 0-2 breaking ball he hung to Howard," Acta said.
What little energy remained by the time the sixth inning rolled around quickly disintegrated when reliever Jesus Colome retired only one of seven batters faced. By the time the right-hander was yanked from the game, five runs had scored (two on an atrocious play in which right fielder Elijah Dukes fired wide to cutoff man Dmitri Young, who deflected the ball into the camera well next to the third-base dugout). Three runs wound up scoring.
"I have to say I had a bad day today," said Colome, whose ERA jumped from 3.38 to 5.82. "I don't remember the last game I had like that, maybe in 2003."
The game was well out of hand by the time that eight-run sixth inning was completed, but the Nationals had plenty of chances earlier to make things competitive. They twice had a man on third with no outs in the first four innings, failing each time to push across a run.
The biggest culprit in those situations: Dukes, who struck out twice against Jamie Moyer as his season batting average dropped to .036 before he finally singled in the seventh.
Dukes, through a team spokesman, declined to speak to reporters after the game, but Acta said the struggling 23-year-old will continue to play ... for now.
"This is an opportunity for us to find out what he can do and what he can't do," Acta said. "I can't give you an amount of at-bats on how long we're going to keep sending him out there, but it's an opportunity for them to play. Nobody can say later on they didn't get a chance."
Each Wednesday beat writer Mark Zuckerman answers fans' questions on washingtontimes.com. To submit a question, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org and read his responses at video1.washingtontimes.com/natsmailbag.
From Art in Rockville: Read your article the other day where you suggested Tim Redding could be the Nats' All-Star rep. Who do you think will end up being the guy?
Mark Zuckerman: I did make a bit of a case for Redding after his latest win the other night. The guy is 6-3 with a 3.16 ERA, is tied for third in wins in the NL and gives the Nationals a chance to win almost every time he gets the ball. Do I think he'll be an All-Star? Probably not, though stranger things have happened. It's funny, though, how much can change over the next (six to seven) weeks until the rosters are named. I remember a year ago at this time thinking Jesus Colome deserved to make the team. Dmitri Young wasn't even on my radar screen. Then Dmitri went on an absolute tear at the plate to earn the All-Star nod, and Colome wound up on the DL and leaving his GM to "pray for his buttocks."
SEEN AND HEARD AT NATIONALS PARK
Top union officials (including chief Don Fehr and ex-players Bobby Bonilla and Steve Rogers) were at the ballpark yesterday, in part to meet with the Nationals and help them select a new player representative for the 2008-2009 term. Ryan Zimmerman has been the club's union rep since last summer but now will hand over the reins to reliever Jon Rauch. John Lannan will be the team's assistant rep. As Zimmerman put it, it's easier for pitchers to hold the role because they have more free time to deal with daily issues than everyday position players.
— Mark Zuckerman
"We believe five years from now, when Lastings is 28, we'll look back and say in the long run the Nats got the best of it. And in the short run the Mets did."
— General manager Jim Bowden on last winter's trade of Ryan Church and Brian Schneider to New York for Lastings Milledge
Brewers RHP Jeff Suppan Record, ERA: 2-3, 4.78
Nationals LHP Odalis Perez Record, ERA: 1-4, 4.34
Time: 7:35 p.m. TV: Ch. 20, MASN