- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 27, 2005

So where do the Nationals go from here, other than Miami for another series against another potential National League East contender?

Last night’s 3-2, 10-inning loss to the Atlanta Braves continued this unpredictable gang’s free fall since the All-Star break and cost it at least a share of first place in the National League East for the first time in more than seven weeks.

If it was not quite a crushing defeat — and no baseball activity in July deserves that label — it nonetheless was deeply depressing because it extended what has become the key question of this improbable season: How far can a major league team go when it continues to transform Louisville Sluggers into toothpicks at the mere touch?

Ominous omens were lurking as Brad Wilkerson, who strikes out about as much at the plate as he does as a lame Chevy Chase Bank pitchman, led off against John Smoltz at Turner Field in the first inning. Most of them dealt with the Nats’ chronic inability to smite baseballs into areas where no one is standing, except perhaps a shirtless fan with a $6 beer in hand.

Lo and behold, Wilkerson singled his first three trips against Smoltz, a very tough Oreo whose labors over 18 seasons have earned him 174 victories, plus universal respect as both starter and closer. But the way the Nats have been hitting lately (not!), Joe Schmoe would have looked just as formidable pawing the dirt out there on the mound.

By dint of vigilant effort, the Nats are last in runs scored, hits and home runs in the National League after batting .170 over their first 11 excruciating games since the All-Star break. I can only imagine how frustrating this must be to manager Frank Robinson, who bashed 586 homers during his playing career in the obviously mistaken impression that this is the object of lugging a wooden object to the dish.

Now, I wouldn’t presume to tell F. Robby how to do his job — after all, he has accumulated 968 more wins than I have during his 15 long, lonely seasons of leaning over dugout rails and staring into space — but maybe a tutorial would be in order.

ROBINSON: “Men this is a bat …

PLAYERS IN UNISON: “What’s it for, skipper?”

ROBINSON: “You see this white, round object I have in my other hand — the thing with the stitches?”

OK, so maybe it isn’t that bad, it just seems that way.

Sunday’s game against Houston at RFK Stadium might have been the Nats’ lowest point, although making definitive offensive statements about this team is risky.

Against an assortment of Astros pitchers not named Clemens or Oswalt, the Nats ripped four hits over 14 innings, one over the last nine. True Jose Guillen — their best hitter, using the term loosely — was rendered hors de combat when he attempted to hit a pitch with his hand — but the general impression was that the Gnats might not score a second run until the bovines returned to their pads.

It got so bad that some viewers, this being one of the few Nats games that nearly everybody could see, probably turned off the sound each half-inning after the commercials. The sound of commentators Mel Proctor and Ron Darling yawning could have put an owl to sleep.

Last night’s virtual rerun was hardly what you would call smashing. All eight of the Nats’ hits were singles, including a blooper to right by Wilkerson in the third inning and a seeing-eye number by Guillen in the fifth that fetched home the two runs.

Yet the Nats cost themselves by being overly aggressive at the plate, a subject discussed with some heat by manager Robinson over the weekend. With two on and two out, Guillen in the second inning and the hapless Cristian Guzman in the third swung at Smoltz’s first offerings and killed the rallies. Hey, guys, what’s the rush?

Livan Hernandez, pitching very well without much strain showing despite his bum knee, held the Braves to one run through eight innings. But when super closer Chad Cordero yielded the tying run in the ninth, it seemed about time to put the cat out and go to bed. To be sure, the Nats might somehow manufacture a third run in extra innings. They appeared just as likely to flap their arms and fly to the moon.

So where, pray tell, do the Nationals go from here? GM Jim Bowden has been muttering about getting another starting pitcher before Sunday’s trading deadline, and his club indeed is a little short behind Hernandez, Esteban Loaiza and the incredibly luckless John Patterson. But is that really the way to go?

I mean, the Nats could be trotting out a rotation of Denton True Young, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Grover Cleveland Alexander and Warren Spahn, and it wouldn’t matter if they can’t score any runs.

Pitching may indeed be 75 percent of baseball, as Connie Mack supposedly mumbled into his Philadelphia A’s scorecard at some point between 1901 and 1950, but the other 25 percent matters, too. Unless you get your kicks on scoreless ties.

And so what the Nats need to do in the next two games of the Atlanta series, and subsequently, is get a few more muscular hits — even, perchance to dream, three or four in the same inning once in a while. Enough already with this business of making the 1906 “Hitless Wonders” White Sox look like the 1927 Yankees by comparison. It’s time to stand up and not be counted out on strikes.

Before we all go, er, batty.

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