- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 12, 2006

As the afternoon wore on and the Washington Nationals kept posting zero after zero on the RFK Stadium scoreboard, one fact became abundantly clear: This isn’t 2005.

Not on the field and not in the stands.

In a distinct contrast from their star-studded and star-making inaugural home opener of a year ago, the Nationals slogged their way through a 7-1 loss to the New York Mets before a less-than-capacity crowd of 40,530 that at times seemed as lifeless as the home team.

“They didn’t have anything to get rowdy about,” manager Frank Robinson said.

No, they didn’t. Picking up on a recurring theme from spring training and the first week of the season, the Nationals struggled mightily at the plate. They managed only three hits against Mets rookie right-hander Brian Bannister and a pair of relievers and found themselves trying in vain to rally from a large deficit.

In the process, they fell to 2-6 on the season. And though 154 games remain, the Nationals face the possibility of falling too far behind the pack in the National League East to be able to make up ground down the road.

“We’ve been in some ballgames and had chances to win, but we need to find a way to win,” catcher Brian Schneider said. “It doesn’t matter how we do it. We just have to find a way.”

The current method isn’t working. Despite a revamped offense, Washington hitters are batting a collective .250 through the season’s first eight games. Worse, they’re not coming up with clutch hits, as evidenced by their .230 average with runners in scoring position.

Not that the Nationals had many scoring opportunities yesterday. Just as was the case Wednesday at Shea Stadium, they were stymied by Bannister (1-0), the Mets’ suddenly blossoming rookie pitcher. In two career starts, both against Washington, the 25-year-old son of former major leaguer Floyd Bannister has given up a total of four runs on five hits in 12 innings.

“My game is simple,” Bannister said. “I don’t try to overpower guys. I try to change speeds, throw different pitches to both sides of the plate and, when they do get the count in their favor, throw a pitch that they don’t want to see.”

The Nationals were helpless against him. They put two runners on base through the game’s first six innings, both singles. And their lone run of the afternoon didn’t come until there were two outs in the seventh, when Alfonso Soriano slammed a 3-2 pitch from Bannister off the facing of the mezzanine down the left-field line.

Soriano, the subject of so much controversy this spring, was greeted with a warm ovation from what remained of the crowd.

“They gave me a lot of emotion today,” Soriano said. “That makes me feel better to come to the stadium every day and play hard.”

Washington tried to put together one last rally in the ninth, loading the bases against New York closer Billy Wagner thanks to three walks. But rookie third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who homered off Wagner on the road last week, struck out on three pitches to end the game.

Even if Zimmerman had come through, the Nationals still were far from making this a competitive game. Starter Ramon Ortiz (0-2) managed to keep it scoreless through three innings, but the right-hander faltered after that, getting tagged for two runs in both the fourth and fifth innings. Reliever Jon Rauch gave up another run in the seventh on Bannister’s double and Jose Reyes’ triple past a diving Soriano, and right-hander Felix Rodriguez was tattooed for a two-run homer by Carlos Beltran in the ninth, putting the game well out of reach.

The way the Nationals are failing to produce offensively, nothing short of brilliance from the pitching staff would have sufficed yesterday.

“[Ortiz] gave up the first two [runs], and it was almost like we were out of the ballgame,” Robinson said.

And if they’re not careful, they might find themselves out of more than just one ballgame in the near future.

“If you asked me my druthers, I’d rather be 6-2 than 2-6,” Robinson said. “But the season’s not near over yet. … We’re going to have a good streak. You just don’t want to be buried too far behind, because that does you no good. You don’t want to get too far behind, because when you do have a win streak you won’t benefit from it.”

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To submit a question, go to the Sports Page

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