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Fifth straight loss puts Nationals on the verge of sweep in Cincinnati

- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 27, 2011

CINCINNATI About a week-and-a-half ago, Washington Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman stood at his locker inside the Nationals clubhouse, beaming from a 6-4 Nationals victory over the Cincinnati Reds. The Nationals were 58-62 at the time, four games under the .500 mark and beginning the final six weeks of the season with their best shot since 2005 at achieving the organization's first winning record.

As Zimmerman talked that night, he noted that the Nationals lack of success in the past down the stretch -- with a 50-87 combined record in the season's final six weeks the last three years -- wasn't lost on anyone.

"It's important," he said. "We need to concentrate on finishing on an upswing instead of a downswing."

But a staggering struggle with runners in scoring position the last five games, a stretch where they've gone 2-for-49 in such situations, has helped them drop all of them. Saturday night's 6-3 loss to the Reds was just the latest.

Instead of surging the way they seemed poised to after going 4-2 and taking two straight series from the Reds and Philadelphia Phillies at home, the Nationals are now seven games under the .500 mark, at 62-69, and on the verge of a series sweep to begin their final multi-city road trip of the season.

"We're not winning games, so obviously we're not scoring enough runs," said Jayson Werth, who got his first start of the season in center field. "I think it's obvious that's what's kept us out of the games this year. Why is that happening? That's the million dollar question.

"I feel good about this team going forward and in the future. We've got a lot of good players but one way or the other, we've got to fix that. It's unacceptable. If you want to win, you've got to drive them in. Bottom line."

Reds starter Mike Leake's first pitch of the third inning was a 75 mph curveball that Wilson Ramos was practically licking his chops for as it came toward him. His 13th of the frame was a cutter, to Werth, that he delivered to the fans in right center field. Michael Morse waited until Leake had left the game to add his own, a ball that hit the upper deck in left field but each time it was simply one swing for one run.

The Nationals' latest offensive blackout hasn't seemed to affect their power. They've hit 28 home runs this month, including six in their last five games, but they're the second-worst team in the major leagues with runners in scoring position (.224) and that fact has only been exacerbated more as they continue to fall further under the .500 mark. They put six other men on base that never went further than second base.

Saturday it was the offense -- along with two costly errors by first baseman Chris Marrero in his major league debut, nine Reds hits, three RBI sacrifice fly balls and a third inning that spiraled out of control on Ross Detwiler. The details of how the Nationals came within one of 70 losses on the season weren't unique: a better pitch or pitch selection here, two plays by Marrero that "have to be made at this level," even in his own estimation, a base hit here or there with a runner on.

The part that matters is that they did not win. The Nationals not in a pennant or playoff race, the focus shifts now more toward development than standings but the games still count. They matter in the way that Zimmerman -- the man who's witnessed more than anyone else in this organization -- alluded to just 12 days ago.

"To be able to win late in the season, I think, is important," he said then.

They have four more games left on this road trip before September hits, four more games to stop their late-August slide and keep the hope of a winning season alive.

"I think it's just important for us, especially assuming that we're going to call some people up here, that we continue to play the game the right way and continue to do the little things that keep you in and eventually lead to winning ballgames," Werth said. "It's very important with these young guys coming up. For them to learn the game the right way is almost more important, at this point, than winning ballgames."

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