Friday, June 16, 2006

How quickly things turn in baseball.

Just last weekend, the Washington Nationals were seemingly the hottest team in the game. Now, they are staggering after getting swept in a four-game home series against the Colorado Rockies. Right-hander Jason Jennings did not allow an earned run in eight innings, and the Rockies blasted the Nationals 8-1 yesterday at RFK Stadium.

The magnitude of the sweep forced manager Frank Robinson to hold closed-door meetings and address his reeling team. Things don’t get any easier for the Nationals as the American League East-leading New York Yankees roll into town today for an interleague series.

“Pitching? Hitting? We didn’t have it,” Robinson said after his Nationals fell to 30-38.

Colorado outscored the Nationals 35-14 in the series. Before the Rockies (34-32) came to RFK, the Nationals were closing in on a .500 record.

The Nationals started this 11-game homestand — the longest of the season — taking three of four games from the Philadelphia Phillies and moved just four games under .500. Overall, they had won nine of their last 11.

“We play with Philly and win three out of four and play good games,” said outfielder Alfonso Soriano, who did not homer for the first time in the last 12 series. “With these guys, we played like a minor league team.”

Reaching .500 by the All-Star break now looks like a stretch. This marks the first time the franchise was swept in a four-game series since April 26-29, 2004, against the San Diego Padres.

“You guys saw it, [the Rockies] whipped our butts,” said right fielder Robert Fick, who was ejected in the eighth inning for arguing balls and strikes. “[Jennings] was just changing speeds on all his off-speed stuff. He’s a veteran pitcher, you’re going to get that from him.”

The Nationals hoped staff ace Livan Hernandez (5-7) would snap the skid against the Rockies and salvage the final game of the series. But Hernandez had a hard time finding the strike zone and threw 138 pitches (with 82 strikes) over 62/3 innings. Hernandez’s pitch count was his highest since he threw 145 on July 31 at the Florida Marlins.

Hernandez allowed six runs — five earned — on eight hits. He walked five and struck out six on an afternoon in which he clearly didn’t have his best stuff.

Rockies right fielder Brad Hawpe hit a two-run, opposite-field home run to left off Hernandez in the second inning, giving Colorado a 2-0 lead.

Colorado slowly added to its lead. The Rockies added one run in the fourth inning and another in the fifth. Hernandez loaded the bases with two outs in the seventh inning by walking two of the first three batters he faced.

The Rockies made it a 6-0 game when Hawpe delivered again off Hernandez with a two-run single to right. Hawpe went 2-for-3 with four RBI, two walks, and two runs scored.

“In the seventh inning I had bases loaded and the count 3-2,” Hernandez said of his battle with Hawpe. “He popped up a couple foul balls and I went with a tough breaking ball to work the guy. I came down the middle. That’s it.”

The Nationals scored their only run on an error by Rockies third baseman Garrett Atkins. With two outs in the seventh, Royce Clayton came on as a pinch hitter and singled to right. Soriano drove Clayton in when his ground ball went through Atkins’ legs and into the left-field corner. Clayton scampered all the way around from first to score.

So what’s the best thing the Nationals can do with the Yankees coming to town?

“Pray,” Fick said.

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

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