- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 27, 2006

ATLANTA — A Washington Nationals starting pitcher failed to make it out of the third inning for the fourth time in seven games yesterday.

So when Pedro Astacio lasted just 22/3 innings against Atlanta Braves ace John Smoltz, the game, for all intents and purposes, was over — a 10-1 loss for the Nationals.

“It’s very crippling,” manager Frank Robinson said. “It just tears your bullpen up. We don’t have a bullpen designed for this type of workload.”

Few major-league teams could overcome the kind of wretched starting pitching Washington has produced in the last week.

The run began Aug. 19 in Philadelphia, when Ramon Ortiz gave up eight runs in 12/3 innings. The next day, Astacio allowed seven runs in two innings. Wednesday in Florida, Tony Armas Jr. lasted only 12/3 innings, giving up eight runs.

Then came Astacio’s performance yesterday — six runs on eight hits and five walks in 22/3 innings. He allowed 13 of the 21 batters he faced to reach base. His ERA in his last two outings: 25.07.

The Nationals’ rotation during the stretch hasn’t been much better. In the last seven games, the starters are 0-5 with a 13.33 ERA.

“I know our starting pitching is not great,” Robinson said earlier this weekend. “But it’s better than what it’s showing here lately.”

Astacio (3-4, 6.10) never gave the Nationals a chance before 38,610 at Turner Field. During a four-run first inning, the 36-year-old right-hander gave up two singles, a double, a sacrifice fly and three walks.

In the Washington dugout, Robinson contemplated making a pitching change right then, but as he pointed out afterward: “Then I’m battling all day trying to get to the end of the ballgame.”

So Astacio stayed on the mound and suffered through another miserable inning in the third, giving up two doubles and a single — and balked in a run.

“It’s not my game,” he said later. “It’s a frustrating situation, but I can’t do nothing about it. I can’t get frustrated about it. I just have to see the next time, see if I can do something better.”

Smoltz (12-6), meanwhile, retired the first 13 batters he faced, didn’t allow a ball out of the infield until the fourth inning and carried a one-hit shutout into the seventh before Washington scored on Marlon Anderson’s sacrifice fly.

In his last six home starts, Smoltz is 6-0 with a 2.11 ERA to go with 51 strikeouts and three walks.

“Every at-bat against him is a grind,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “It was just one of those days where when he’s good, you can’t do anything about it. That’s why he’s one of the best.”

The Nationals weren’t much better in the field, committing three more errors to extend their major league-leading total to 108.

“Sloppy defense a little, but what’s effort when you get down six runs in the second inning against a tough pitcher?” Robinson said. “All you can do is the best you can.”

Nick Johnson committed two of those errors, giving him a career-high 12 on the season. The first baseman’s worst moment, though, came in the sixth, when he was leveled by Atlanta’s Jeff Francoeur on a popup along the first base line. Francoeur, a former football player, slammed into Johnson, and both of them hit the ground.

“I was just trying to focus on the ball,” Johnson said. “Next thing you know, you’re on the ground.”

Johnson was helped off the field, diagnosed with a strained neck. He said his head was sore after the game and said it’s possible he suffered a mild concussion, though he won’t know the extent of the injury until he wakes up today.

Johnson said he didn’t believe Francoeur ran into him on purpose and Francoeur called him after the game to apologize.

“I wanted to make sure he was all right,” said Francoeur, who hurt his shoulder on the play. “Obviously, I didn’t mean to do that. It’s just one of those things, a freak accident. Hopefully, we’ll both be all right.”

The Nationals can only hope their starting rotation heals after its latest pounding.

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