- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 13, 2006

As well as the Washington Nationals have been playing for the last three weeks, manager Frank Robinson knows how fine the line has been between wins and losses.

One poorly located pitch here and one failed timely at-bat there and the Nationals might not be baseball’s hottest team. And if not for a couple of small things last night — especially a ninth-inning drive down the line that was foul by inches — the Nationals might have turned a 4-3 loss to the Colorado Rockies into another narrow victory.

Instead, Washington came up on the wrong end of too many key plays. The offense was stymied by left-hander Jeff Francis for seven innings. Starter Ramon Ortiz wasn’t as sharp as he had been for the last month. Alfonso Soriano struggled through the kind of ballgame fans at RFK Stadium haven’t seen much this season.

And Marlon Byrd couldn’t will his shot down the left-field line in the ninth inning over the fence or a couple more inches to the right. Instead, the ball struck the top of the fence, perhaps six inches to the left of the foul pole, denying Byrd and the Nationals a potential game-tying homer and allowing Rockies closer Brian Fuentes to notch his 14th save.

“You need love in this game. You need luck,” said Byrd, who tried to use some body English to coerce the ball into fair territory. “And when things are going bad, sometimes things don’t come your way.”

Too many things didn’t come Washington’s way, adding up to a lackluster loss before 20,633. The Nationals (30-35) couldn’t do anything with Francis, who threw 62/3 innings of four-hit ball and kept Washington’s hitters off-balance, none more so than Soriano.

The spark plug of the Nationals lineup went 0-for-4 and struck out three times, prolonging his mini-slump. Since homering against the Philadelphia Phillies on Thursday, Soriano is 2-for-17, dropping his batting average to .291.

“It’s nothing,” he insisted. “Sometimes you have a good swing. Sometimes you miss the pitches. That’s part of the game.”

Washington needed more from Soriano and his teammates atop the lineup last night. The Nos. 1, 2 and 3 hitters were a combined 0-for-12, and that wasn’t enough to overcome an off night for Ortiz (5-5).

The right-hander had played no small role in helping the Nationals emerge from their early season slumber, but he hadn’t been alone in fueling the club’s three-week resurgence. Washington starters have gone 11-4 with a 3.36 ERA in the last 20 games, and every member of the rotation has contributed.

That presents an interesting dilemma for Robinson and Co. John Patterson, who allowed one earned run in a 42/3-inning rehab start with Class AAA New Orleans last night, could be ready to come off the disabled list this weekend. And that would leave the Nationals with six starting pitchers and without a logical candidate for demotion.

Shawn Hill might have been the original choice, but the rookie right-hander has made a case to stay with a 1.80 ERA in three starts. It’s possible Hill will be sent to the bullpen to make room for Patterson, even though it wouldn’t be a natural fit for him.

A few weeks ago, with no wins and a 6.30 ERA, Ortiz looked like the odd man out. Not anymore. The veteran right-hander has re-established himself as perhaps Washington’s best starter.

He continued the trend last night, offering up 62/3 innings of quality work, though he wasn’t quite as dominant as in other recent outings. The Rockies got to him in the fifth with a leadoff single from J.D. Closser, an RBI triple from No. 8 hitter Clint Barmes and a run-scoring groundout from ex-Nationals favorite Jamey Carroll.

They took the lead in the sixth when Ortiz surrendered a two-out, broken-bat single to Closser, bringing Todd Helton around from second, and they added another run in the seventh on back-to-back singles by Cory Sullivan and Helton (the latter coming off reliever Mike Stanton).

So Ortiz’s night ended on a sour note. His final line (62/3 innings, four runs, seven hits) was good enough to keep his team in the game but not enough to earn him his sixth straight victory.

“He’s not going to always be lights-out,” Robinson said. “He’s going to have days like he had tonight. We’ve got to try to pick him up.”

Ortiz’s teammates didn’t. The only breakthrough against the soft-tossing Francis came in the second, when Jose Guillen (batting sixth for the first time as a National) singled through the left side of the infield for an RBI single and Brian Schneider followed with a run-scoring double play.

They squandered every other opportunity they had until the ninth. Guillen hit an opposite-field, solo homer off Fuentes — making him 4-for-7 with four RBI since coming off the DL — to make it 4-3, but pinch-hitter Damian Jackson struck out, and Byrd (after coming up inches short of tying the game) grounded out to short.

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