- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 22, 2006

BOSTON — The Washington Nationals came to town this week flying so high that manager Frank Robinson said his team didn’t even need a plane to get here.

After getting pounded three straight nights by the Boston Red Sox, Robinson’s bunch might have needed the Concorde to make it back home last night. That’s how deflating this interleague series was for a Nationals squad that was looking for the first supersonic jet out of New England following a 9-3 drubbing at Fenway Park.

There’s no way to sugarcoat this. Washington (32-42) was flat-out manhandled by the vastly superior Red Sox (42-28), losing these three games by a combined 26-9 and being outhit 46-22.

“It’s really deflating,” catcher Brian Schneider said. “We came in here and got our butts kicked pretty bad. … I wish I could defend ourselves, but it’s very hard to justify when you come out and get beat that bad every game.”

Only three days ago, the Nationals were on an emotional high following back-to-back comeback victories over the New York Yankees at RFK Stadium. They came back down after a humbling visit to Boston, where a thin pitching staff was exposed and a cobbled-together lineup was rendered hapless by a Red Sox club that didn’t even send Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett or Jonathan Papelbon to the mound.

“Thank goodness we only play nine [innings] and they don’t make us play until we catch up,” Robinson said. “Nothing went right. The pitching wasn’t very good this series, and the hitting was nonexistent. We just got no offensive production from anybody. We had no chance.”

Washington whiffed at unknown Kyle Snyder’s curveball Monday, was baffled by Tim Wakefield’s knuckleball Tuesday and then was blown away by young Jon Lester’s fastball last night. Lester, Boston’s second-round pick in the 2002 draft, was brilliant in his third career start. The 22-year-old left-hander allowed just one run on three hits and struck out 10 in six splendid innings.

A double by Damian Jackson and a bloop single by Alfonso Soriano in the third accounted for the Nationals’ lone run against the rookie. Otherwise, they had no chance at the plate; every starter but Ryan Zimmerman struck out, and even the rookie third baseman went 0-for-12 in the series.

“He kept us off balance,” Robinson said. “But it’s hard to judge how good a pitcher is because whoever goes out there shut us down in this series. We did nothing. We got nothing from our big guys, the guys we really count on. We generated no offense.”

Lester’s effort, combined with David Ortiz’s grand slam off rookie Shawn Hill, sealed the Nationals’ fate. They flew home last night eager for their first day off since June 1, hoping their exhausted pitching staff can recover in time for this weekend’s series in Baltimore.

Given the beaten-down state of the bullpen, Robinson desperately needed innings out of Hill last night. Neither Bill Bray nor Jason Bergmann was available after each pitched into a third inning of relief Tuesday. Gary Majewski and Saul Rivera were available but only on a limited basis. So Hill’s assignment was clear: Give them as much as he had. Because, as Robinson said before the game, “If I had to go out there before the fifth inning tonight, I don’t know what I’d do.”

The rookie right-hander hadn’t let his manager down yet, coming through with four straight quality starts since getting called up from Class AAA New Orleans on May 27. But this might have been his toughest test to date, facing the vaunted Red Sox lineup at a hitter’s haven like Fenway Park.

From the start, it was obvious Hill was entering uncharted territory. He got into a bases-loaded jam in the first but pitched out of it. He then retired the first two men he faced in the second before really falling into trouble.

Hill surrendered three straight singles, loading the bases for the last man the Nationals wanted to see at the plate in that situation: Ortiz. Perhaps the game’s best clutch hitter at the moment, “Big Papi” owned a .361 average and 100 RBI in 83 career at-bats with the bases loaded when he stepped up.

It didn’t take long for those numbers to increase. Hill grooved his first pitch — an 88-mph fastball over the heart of the plate — and Ortiz tattooed it. The sellout crowd of 36,464 let out an instant roar. Everyone knew it was going out; the only question was where it would land.

The ball wound up striking the roof of the camera well above the center-field fence, perhaps 420 feet from the plate. Ortiz waltzed around the bases, his fifth career grand slam having given Boston a 4-0 lead.

That pretty much set the tone for the night. Hill battled his way through 52/3 innings, finally departing after surrendering his 12th hit on his 110th pitch. Mike Stanton entered and immediately gave up back-to-back doubles, turning this one into a rout and sending the Nationals home shell-shocked from their inhospitable trip to Fenway.

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