- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 2, 2009

MIAMI | By the time they arrived at Land Shark Stadium at about 11 a.m. Wednesday, Nyjer Morgan and Sean Burnett already had spent seven hours making their way from Pittsburgh to South Florida. The newest members of the Washington Nationals were exhausted and still a bit stunned by the trade that uprooted their lives, but both insisted they couldn’t wait to get on the field, even though they were now playing for the worst team in baseball.

“That doesn’t matter,” Morgan said, a wide smile on his face. “The talent’s here. [Acting GM Jim Rizzo], he wanted me bad. It feels good when someone wants you real bad.”

After experiencing a 5-3 loss to the Florida Marlins that featured all the staples of a typical Nationals game - poor situational hitting, sloppy defense, a bullpen implosion - Morgan and Burnett might be tempted to rethink their positive outlook.

The Nationals lost plenty of games over the last three months in this very fashion, and they probably will lose plenty more over the next three months. Each one, however, has been painful in its own right, and this latest defeat was plenty tough to swallow.

In falling to 0-9 against the Marlins this season (3-23 over the last two seasons), the Nationals wasted yet another strong performance from a young starting pitcher, failed to deliver a knockout punch against an opposing starter who was struggling, stranded 13 men on base and ultimately had their bullpen blow a late lead.

“It’s frustrating,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “They’re a team that’s definitely doing the little things right. That’s what we need to do if we want to win.”

The Nationals (22-54) don’t do any little things right, which explains their atrocious record more than anything. Take the first four innings of Wednesday’s game. Despite catching Florida ace Josh Johnson on a rare off-day - he was knocked out after putting nine men on base in 3 1/3 innings - Washington managed just one run against the right-hander.

“Right now our situational hitting just flat-out stinks,” manager Manny Acta said. “It’s killing us. … We had this guy on the ropes. He had a really bad day, and we couldn’t take advantage of it. We knew that was going to end up hurting us.”

Did it ever.

Though Josh Willingham’s two-run single in the seventh put the Nationals ahead 3-2 and put Jordan Zimmermann (who turned in his fifth straight strong start) in position to earn the win, a couple more runs early would have left everyone feeling more comfortable.

Instead, Acta was left to entrust that slim lead to a bullpen that rarely has risen to the challenge this season. Not even his newest weapon, Burnett, could avoid contracting the Washington bullpen virus.

Handed the ball for the seventh, the 28-year-old left-hander promptly hung a full-count change-up over the plate to the first batter he faced (Cody Ross) and watched as the ball soared over the left-field fence for a game-tying homer.

“I definitely had nerves,” said Burnett, who had a 3.06 ERA with the Pirates. “It kind of felt like my debut all over again. … Hopefully from here on out, I’ll be relaxed.”

The game was still tied at that point, though, and Burnett settled down to retire the next four batters he faced. But fellow relievers Julian Tavarez and Mike MacDougal finished the deed.

Tavarez (3-6) couldn’t corral Hanley Ramirez’s slow roller with one out in the eighth - “I think he panicked,” Acta said - and then allowed another single to Ross Gload. MacDougal entered and issued a walk to load the bases, then allowed the go-ahead run to score on a fielder’s choice and another run to score on Ross’ base hit to right.

Thus, Zimmermann became the latest young Washington starter to pitch well yet be denied victory. Since June 2, that group owns a 3.83 ERA - and a 5-8 record.

“It is really tough because we’ve got young starting pitchers and they go out there and go six or seven innings,” Tavarez said. “They’ve been doing good. When you go out there and you’re not able to get the job done for them, it’s very disappointing.”

That’s a feeling most everyone in the Nationals’ clubhouse has been experiencing for months, but it’s one that must have felt new for the two new guys on the roster.

As they packed up and prepared to board their third flight of the day - this time to the District - Burnett and Morgan sounded like they needed a mental and physical breather.

“It’ll be nice to get the hotel tonight and relax,” Burnett said. “It’s been a weird 24 hours and a long day today for me and Nyjer.”

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