- The Washington Times - Monday, June 8, 2009

When John Lannan walked the first batter he faced Saturday night, the Washington Nationals left-hander told himself not to give up. Just get a double-play grounder out of the next batter. And he did, setting the tone for the first complete-game victory of his career.

When Craig Stammen walked the first batter he faced Sunday afternoon, the Nationals rookie right-hander had the same thought Lannan did 18 1/2 hours earlier.

“Get a groundball, get a double play,” Stammen said. “Unfortunately I didn’t get the ball down on that pitch, he hit a double and then things kind of snowballed from there.”

Did they ever. The New York Mets pounced on Washington’s young pitcher, scored five runs before the first inning was over and went on to an easy 7-0 victory before a disappointed crowd of 31,841 at Nationals Park.

It’s not fair to pin an entire nine-inning ballgame on a first plate appearance, but Stammen’s four-pitch walk to Mets leadoff man Alex Cora did set an ominous tone for the entire afternoon. The 25-year-old righty relies on his sinker to get him through innings without suffering much damage, and it was clear from the beginning that he didn’t have command of his most dependable pitch.

By the time Stammen found it again - he followed his disastrous first with four scoreless innings - it was too late. Washington could not climb out of such a deep hole and suffered its 10th loss in 12 games.

There was another factor in this latest loss: The Nationals could not do anything against Mets starter Livan Hernandez, the sage veteran who tossed seven scoreless innings against his former club less than two weeks after a complete-game victory against the same opponent.

“He’s a professional,” Washington catcher Josh Bard said. “He just never gives in. … Last time I checked, I think he’s made about $60 million having guys swing at balls. That’s a credit to him.”

This, however, was not an isolated case of one pitcher dominating the Nationals’ lineup. During this wretched 12-game stretch, manager Manny Acta’s club has scored a total of 39 runs. Throw out the two wins - Washington won 10-6 on Tuesday and 7-1 on Saturday - and this team has scored 17 total runs in its last 10 losses.

That’s a far cry from the offense that averaged five runs a night through the season’s first 44 games.

“That was expected, kind of,” Acta insisted. “I didn’t think we were going to be scoring seven runs a game for the rest of the season. It’s just going to go down a little bit like it has right now. … Pretty soon I think we’re going to be able to put together more games like we did [Saturday]. But it was just impossible to maintain the offense that we had the first month and a half.”

The lack of offense puts a tremendous amount of pressure on Washington’s young pitchers to give their a team a chance, and Stammen wasn’t able to do that Sunday. In his fourth career start (second against the Mets) he couldn’t find the strike zone with any consistency, surrendered a couple of backbreaking doubles to Fernando Martinez and Ryan Church and uncorked a pair of wild pitches. All in that dreadful first inning.

“I just didn’t have any sink on my fastball,” he said. “And I’m unaccustomed to pitching like that, so I struggled.”

Stammen now owns an 0-2 record and 6.45 ERA as a big leaguer. The Nationals have high hopes for their 12th-round pick from the 2005 draft, a late bloomer who finally rose through the organizational ranks last season. But time may be running out for him to continue his development in the District.

Left-hander Scott Olsen, who went on the disabled list May 17 with shoulder tendinitis, is making his first rehab start Tuesday and is hoping to return in the next couple of weeks. That will force one young pitcher to head back to Class AAA Syracuse, and right now Stammen seems a more likely candidate than left-hander Ross Detwiler.

What if Stammen had merely escaped that first-inning jam Sunday and induced the double-play grounder he so desperately needed? Perhaps he would join Lannan as a mainstay in the Washington rotation.

“[Lannan] made a pitch, got a groundball and got a double play, and we didn’t,” Bard said. “There’s the difference right there. You’ve got to take your learning experience from it and try to get better next time.”

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide