- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 12, 2006

It was a performance that illustrated how little margin for error exists for the Washington Nationals’ rotation. Ramon Ortiz was better but not nearly good enough.

Ortiz allowed four runs on eight hits in six innings yesterday in a 7-1 loss to the New York Mets — a losing effort that still showed marked improvement over his start Thursday in which he was bombed by the Mets for six runs on 10 hits in five innings.

But the Nationals are off to a disappointing 2-6 start for two reasons: a punchless offense and starting pitching that doesn’t last deep into games.

In yesterday’s home opener, Ortiz survived his first trip through the formidable Mets batting order but was roughed up by that $100 million-plus lineup the second time through. Ortiz (0-2, 8.18 ERA) gave up two runs in the fourth and two more in the fifth.

“In two innings, he gave up four runs,” manager Frank Robinson said. “When he gave up the first two, it was almost like we’re out of the ballgame with the way our offense was going. He wasn’t too bad. I thought he could have been a little bit better, but he wasn’t bad.”

The Nationals constantly have played from behind this season, preventing the starters from working deep into games. Robinson as a result is often forced to use pinch hitters to generate offense out of the No. 9 hole. If the Nationals find themselves ahead, the starters would have a chance to pitch more than seven innings and give an overworked bullpen some rest.

“It seems like when we get a decent pitched game we do nothing offensively,” Robinson said.

The starting pitching was the club’s biggest concern entering the season and remains so. There is no clear-cut No. 3 starter after ace Livan Hernandez and right-hander John Patterson. And Hernandez (1-1) and Patterson (0-0) haven’t been their usual dominant selves in their two starts each.

Hernandez, baseball’s top workhorse, has allowed nine runs on 20 hits in 12 innings in two starts, giving him a 5.25 ERA. Patterson, who has a sore right forearm that has prevented him from throwing his slider, is carrying an uncharacteristic 6.30 ERA and has pitched a combined 10 innings in his two starts.

“I think [the starters] are averaging a little over five innings a start now,” said Patterson, who went 9-7 with a 3.13 ERA last season. “It’s early in the season, and we still don’t have built-up pitch counts yet. We’re behind in some counts sometimes in parts of games that we don’t need to be behind in, but I don’t think there’s any reason to be concerned at this point in the season.”

The rotation missed out on starters A.J. Burnett and Kevin Millwood in the offseason when those free agents declined to sign deals with the club because of the uncertainty surrounding a Nationals franchise that did not yet have a stadium deal and still lacks an owner.

The Nationals traded aging first baseman Vinny Castilla to the San Diego Padres for right-hander Brian Lawrence to serve as the No. 3 starter, but he injured his right shoulder early in spring training.

With Lawrence out for the season, the club was forced to sign veteran Pedro Astacio to an incentive-laden, $700,000 deal. That move has not yet worked. The 36-year-old was placed on the 15-day disabled list with a strained right forearm April 1.

“Right now, the team is not playing very good, but nobody has to think about that,” Ortiz said. “It’s my second game pitching. I don’t think we pitched a real bad game today — four runs in six innings? I’ve got a long way to go. Two games? It’s way too early.”

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