- The Washington Times - Friday, May 30, 2008

Pitchers can’t get away with occasional mistakes in the majors.

Charlie Manning is learning that lesson the hard way, and the Washington Nationals are paying the price.

Twice in the last three days, Nationals manager Manny Acta handed the 29-year-old left-hander the ball in the latter stages of a tie game and saw him serve up crushing home runs to left-handed hitters. Adrian Gonzalez got him Tuesday night to lead the San Diego Padres to victory, and Jody Gerut duplicated the feat yesterday, belting a three-run homer in the eighth inning to hand Washington a debilitating 5-2 loss at PETCO Park.

Both home runs came on hanging sliders over the plate, pitches Manning now realizes he can’t afford to throw while standing on a big league mound.

“Up here if I make a mistake, they’re capitalizing,” he said. “There are good hitters down there, too, but sometimes you get away with stuff.”

Held in check once again by a Padres team that entered this week with the National League’s worst record, Washington (23-32) trudged out of town knowing it easily could have swept the series instead of dropping two of three.

The way Acta’s club performs at the plate these days, there is no margin for error. The Nationals, whose .233 team batting average is the lowest in the majors, managed to produce six runs and 11 hits in Wednesday night’s win but were held to a total of four runs and 11 hits in their two losses.

Yesterday’s offensive showing against San Diego lefty Wil Ledezma and four relievers comprised three singles, a double, four walks, three stolen bases and a sacrifice fly.

“We need to score runs. That’s what it is,” Acta said, showing some rare signs of agitation with his players. “Even if Manning got the job done, we weren’t going to win. We scored two runs. We were going to be tied for how long, who knows.”

Washington’s offensive woes spread across the board. Cleanup hitter Dmitri Young, now hitting .190 in 15 games, went 0-for-4 with a pair of strikeouts and an inning-ending double play. Leadoff man Felipe Lopez doubled, but his 1-for-4 showing still left his average at .247. The biggest culprits were the two men who batted sixth in Acta’s lineup: Wily Mo Pena and Rob Mackowiak, who combined to strike out four times in four at-bats.

“What can we do? These are the guys we brought to spring training,” Acta said. “These are the guys we’re expecting to have the offense going for us. And they’re just not getting it done.”

Which puts an undue amount of pressure on Washington’s pitching staff. Yesterday starter John Lannan tried to do his part, allowing two runs over six strong innings. But he departed with his team down a run, bailed out only by Ryan Langerhans’ pinch-hit RBI single in the seventh that tied the game 2-2.

Saul Rivera (3-3) pitched a scoreless inning in relief of Lannan and returned to start the eighth, but got into trouble when he allowed back-to-back, one-out singles. So Acta turned to Manning, a career minor leaguer finally getting his first crack at the majors, to retire the left-handed-hitting Gerut.

Manning threw three straight sliders, getting ahead in the count, 1-2. He caught too much of the plate on his next slider and recoiled in horror as Gerut belted the pitch deep into the right-field stands.

“When I get ahead of a guy, I really need to try to put him away instead of just kind of messing around and leaving balls over the plate,” the reliever said. “That’s the adjustment: Throw quality strikes and not just strikes.”

Manning, who posted a 1.95 ERA in 19 appearances with Class AAA Columbus, hasn’t thrown enough quality strikes since earning his promotion last week. In four big-league outings spanning three innings, he has allowed three runs and the two homers.

With club officials watching closely and not afraid to make changes, this not-so-young rookie knows he may not have much time to make a better impression.

“I came up here to get lefties out, and the last two games I really haven’t been able to do that,” he said. “I’ve given up home runs. There’s something I need to prove. And quickly.”

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