- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 20, 2006

PHILADELPHIA — For the last-place Washington Nationals to remain competitive for the rest of the season, it’s going to start with their starting pitching.

Last night, Nationals right-hander Ramon Ortiz failed to live up to that simple blueprint.

The veteran right-hander had his poorest outing of the season — giving up eight runs on five hits and three walks in 12/3 innings — and nearly caused a bench-clearing brawl in an 11-2 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies before 34,881 at Citizens Bank Park.

The Phillies batted around in the second inning, scoring eight runs. Ortiz threw just 46 pitches in this bludgeoning on Broad Street.

“If you want to say 8-0 is out of a game … we don’t stop playing,” Nationals manager Frank Robinson said. “That’s a pretty good hole to dig yourself out of and we didn’t do it tonight. And you’re not going to do it too often, either, when you get down eight in the second inning.”

When Phillies center fielder Aaron Rowand — the 11th batter of the second inning — came to the plate, Ortiz hit him square in the back. It was the second batter Ortiz hit in the inning after plunking Chase Utley three batters earlier.

“I pitch inside, I don’t hit anybody on purpose,” Ortiz said.

Utley charged up the dugout steps and onto the grass after Rowand was hit. Rowand walked slowly up the first-base line staring at Ortiz, who said something to Rowand and stared back. Phillies players and coaches started emptying out of the dugout, while the Nationals infielders converged on the pitcher’s mound.

Utley was restrained, and Rowand made it to first base. Ortiz was ejected by home-plate umpire Paul Nauert for throwing at Rowand.

This game was a disaster for Ortiz (9-11). In his shortest outing of the season. Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard, the National League’s home run leader, hit a tape-measure center-field shot off a $48 million Powerball sign hanging in the Nationals’ second-tier bullpen.

Howard’s 43rd homer of the season dealt Ortiz a devastating, three-run blow. With the Phillies (60-62) already leading 5-0, Howard’s homer essentially put the game away by the second inning.

That was the last thing Ortiz needed, coming off a dreadful start in Monday’s 10-4 loss to the Atlanta Braves. He gave up seven runs on nine hits in just 42/3 innings — his previous shortest outing of the season.

“My last two games I’ve pitched horrible,” Ortiz said.

Like many of the Nationals’ pitchers, Ortiz is a free agent at the end of the season. Performances like this one won’t help him keep his job.

After opening the season 0-4 with a 6.30 ERA in seven starts, Ortiz began to pitch well in mid-May with five straight victories to improve to 5-4. But since June 12, Ortiz is 4-7.

Alfonso Soriano hit his career-high 40th home run of the season off Phillies starter Cole Hamels (6-6) to make the score 8-2 in the fifth inning. Center fielder Alex Escobar ended Hamels’ shutout bid with his fourth home run of the season.

The game got further out of hand for the Nationals in the fifth when reliever Travis Hughes entered the game. Right-hander Ryan Wagner, who came on for Ortiz in the second, pitched 21/3 innings of shutout baseball before turning the game over to Hughes.

Hughes began the season at Class AAA New Orleans. The right-hander has allowed five runs in eight innings with the Nationals. He has allowed runs in four of his last five games. Desperate for pitching, the Nationals purchased Hughes’ contract from New Orleans on July 28.

When Hughes entered the game, he immediately walked Hamels, and then allowed back-to-back singles to score and make it 9-2.

“I just take it day by day, ya know, go out there and try and compete,” said Hughes, whose ERA went up to 7.20.

Utley’s sacrifice fly coupled with right fielder Austin Kearns’ throwing error to third gave the Phillies an 11-2 lead. Hughes allowed three runs on four hits with two walks in just two innings.

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