- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 31, 2005

MIAMI — Major league pitchers, especially those on clubs that struggle to hit, are often asked if they feel like they have to be perfect on the mound.

Rarely will a pitcher acknowledge it, but then rarely does a team struggle to score runs like the Washington Nationals. So when the question was popped to John Patterson yesterday following a 3-0 loss to the Florida Marlins, the right-hander didn’t hesitate to come right out and say it.

“Absolutely,” Patterson said. “We have to go out and pretty much be perfect right now.”

Perfect might not even have cut it yesterday at Dolphins Stadium. To win, you still have to score a run — something the Nationals could not do against Marlins starter A.J. Burnett and two relievers.

This is what it has come to for the Nationals, though. They haven’t scored more than four runs in their last 13 games. They’ve scored a total of 400 in 104 games this season, lowest in the majors. They’ve hit 72 home runs, by far the lowest in baseball.

And, most importantly, they’ve lost six straight games — the sport’s worst losing streak at the moment.

All because of an offense that is so stagnant, you can’t distinguish it from fumes coming out of the Everglades.

“We just can’t get that hit,” outfielder Ryan Church said. “It’s like we have a disease: Can’t Get Them in from Scoring Position Disease.”

Whatever it is they’ve come down with, the Nationals (55-49) can’t find the cure. It certainly wasn’t Burnett, the right-hander who is hotly rumored to be on his way out of South Florida yet tossed seven innings of four-hit ball yesterday in his final start before today’s trade deadline.

“I don’t know why they’d want to get rid of him,” Church said. “He’s got a great arm. I’d lock him up.”

And the cure certainly wasn’t for Washington to take the field without two of its most prolific hitters. Second baseman Jose Vidro and right fielder Jose Guillen were last-minute scratches because of nagging injuries.

“You always like to have key guys in your lineup, because you at least feel like you can give it your best shot,” manager Frank Robinson said. “I’m not knocking the guys who go out there in their place. But you lose two of your top guys, you’re not going to be the same, that’s for sure.”

Clearly, the Nationals weren’t the same. Washington hardly put up a fight against Burnett, squandering what few scoring opportunities even came up. The Nationals got just eight balls out of the infield in nine innings: six fly outs and two singles. Their other two hits never even reached the outfield grass.

Still, they put themselves in prime position to take an early lead, when Burnett opened the first by walking Brad Wilkerson and hitting Jamey Carroll. But by now what happened next is a broken record: fly out, ground out, ground out. Inning over, no runs.

“In the first inning, we could have got something going, maybe got enough to win a ballgame,” Robinson said. “After the first inning, there was just nothing.”

Nothing but futility. And even that was prolonged by a 50-minute rain delay before the top of the third inning.

By the time the teams retook the field following the mid-afternoon cloudburst, the Marlins had taken a 1-0 lead. Patterson (4-3) surrendered a leadoff double to Paul Lo Duca in the second, then uncorked a wild pitch that allowed the runner to move up. Washington catcher Brian Schneider tried to throw out Lo Duca at third, but the ball sailed into left field as Lo Duca scored.

Florida scored another run off a Patterson wild pitch (this time in the sixth inning) and added one more in the seventh when Miguel Cabrera roped a double off reliever Gary Majewski.

Thus, Patterson was handed the loss, despite another generally solid performance on his part: six innings, two runs, five hits. It was far from the perfect outing Patterson spoke of, but still good enough to earn the win in most cases.

“You really just think about going out there and throwing a quality start: Three runs or less, six innings or more,” he said. “That gives your team a chance to win.”

Just not this team. Robinson may be inclined to make lineup changes for today’s series finale, hoping to find some combination that can at least send his team home with one victory on this six-game road trip.

If the Nationals can’t change their luck today, they’ll head back to Washington a half-game behind the Marlins in the National League East.

“It can’t be like this forever. It just can’t be,” Church said. “We did it in the first half. So why can’t we do it now?”

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