- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 15, 2006

PITTSBURGH — The Washington Nationals team that congregated in the visitors clubhouse at PNC Park yesterday bore little resemblance to the one that dispersed throughout the country Sunday for the All-Star break.

Gone was one-third of their bullpen, Gary Majewski and Bill Bray, as well as shortstop Royce Clayton, all dealt to the Cincinnati Reds the previous afternoon. Gone was center fielder Marlon Byrd, outrighted to the minor leagues after an abysmal first half. John Patterson was there, but the right-hander is back on the disabled list.

In their place was a host of new players, all brought in by general manager Jim Bowden to dramatically change the face of this organization as it attempts to rebuild. Former Reds players Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez were joined by former Baltimore Orioles center fielder Luis Matos. Roy Corcoran, who hadn’t pitched in the majors in two years, was back as well, hoping to fortify a suddenly depleted relief corps.

These are the new-look Nationals. Too bad the results are the same.

All those changes couldn’t produce a victory against the team with baseball’s worst record. Washington lost 7-4 to the Pittsburgh Pirates before 26,720 at PNC Park, a rough way to start the second half of the season.

Done in by a mediocre start from Ramon Ortiz, spotty defense by some of those newcomers and an inability to come through with clutch hits despite countless opportunities, the Nationals (38-53) dropped their fourth straight game.

“I’ve seen it before,” manager Frank Robinson said after his team left 12 men on base. “I’ve seen a lot of that this year. We had that quite often in the first half, and tonight wasn’t any different.”

It didn’t help matters that the two principal acquisitions in Thursday’s trade — Kearns and Lopez — figured prominently in this loss. Kearns went 0-for-3, and though he reached base twice, he also twice stranded a runner on third with two out. Lopez, meanwhile, was 0-for-4, twice left the bases loaded and made a costly error on a routine line drive.

Not exactly the kind of immediate impact the Nationals hoped those two would make.

“You can’t jump to any conclusions the first game,” Lopez said.

No one will, inauspicious debuts or not. And Bowden has made a point to say this move was designed to help the franchise over the long haul, not necessarily the short term.

But a few things did stand out last night, particularly in the field. Kearns, a natural right fielder, played only his fourth game in center field in the last three seasons and turned around the wrong way on Jason Bay’s fifth-inning double to the base of the wall. With Alfonso Soriano still learning the nuances of left field and Jose Guillen battling injuries in right, the Nationals may have to overcome their outfield defense for the foreseeable future.

“You’re going to see plays that seem like they should be made,” Robinson said, “that true outfielders, right fielders, left fielders, whatever are going to make. You’re going to see that. That’s all there is to it. The key thing is as long as they give me the effort out there. That’s all you can ask.”

The Nationals believe Kearns and Lopez, both 26, will enjoy far more positive moments than negative ones, so they welcomed the duo with open arms yesterday. The two flew in from Cincinnati in the morning and made it to PNC Park in plenty of time for an early-afternoon workout with their new team.

“There’s a lot of talent here, young talent, too,” Kearns said. “It’s definitely going in the right direction. That’s fun to be a part of.”

Once the game got going, the new Nationals found themselves right in the middle of the action. Lopez (hitting second) and Kearns (hitting cleanup) each had RBI opportunities in the top of the first, and each grounded out.

Lopez also found himself in the middle of a key moment in the field. He had a reputation in Cincinnati for having trouble with routine plays, and backed that assessment up when he missed a second-inning line drive hit right at him by Ronny Paulino. The shortstop’s 15th error of the season allowed the inning to continue, and the Pirates ultimately scored an unearned run for a 3-1 lead.

“It was a knuckleball. It was tough,” Lopez said. “It kind of hit the side of my glove and popped out.”

The Nationals tried to mount several comebacks but couldn’t make up for the early gaffes and a rocky start from Ortiz (6-8), who allowed five runs (four earned) on seven hits in five innings.

His counterpart, Zach Duke, seemed to make just as many mistakes yet found a way to minimize the damage. Duke (6-8) surrendered three straight hits in the second but gave up only one run. And despite walking the bases loaded in the fourth, the young left-hander struck out Lopez, stranding all three runners.

Lopez had another chance with the bases loaded in the sixth. But reliever Salomon Torres, after throwing a run-scoring wild pitch, got Lopez to ground out on his next, spoiling the Nationals’ opportunity.

They had one more chance in the eighth, loading the bases with two outs after an RBI triple from Soriano. But Kearns grounded to third on the first pitch he saw from reliever Matt Capps, killing that rally and putting a final stamp on a strange day for two of Washington’s newest players.

“[Getting traded] is something I haven’t experienced before, but it’s still baseball,” Kearns said. “No excuses. You still have to play the same game.”

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To submit a question, go to the https://www.washingtontimes.com/sports>Sports Page

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