- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 24, 2006

BALTIMORE — Though the skies were clear, ominous storm clouds hovered over the Washington Nationals last night as they reeled 40 miles north to confront the unneighborly Baltimore Orioles.

Ten games under .500. Three straight losses. A rotation that had produced one victory in 13 games. The suspicion that maybe manager Frank Robinson and/or GM Jim Bowden should start checking the classifieds.

And that was the good news. The bad news was that this team still had 88 games to play.

True, we do have a major league team again, and a new playpen for D.C. is under construction hard by the Anacostia River. Perhaps by 2008 or 2009, the Lerners and club president Stan Kasten will have built a winner. But baseball is largely a matter of here and now, and right now the Nats’ here appears nowhere.

The first half of last season lured us all into unrealistic expectations because the Nats were in first place and flying oh so high with a 50-31 record. Then came the inevitable rough landing. Since then Washington had gone 63-92, a nonwinning percentage of .406.

The Nats slunk down the B-W Parkway after dropping three games in Boston so emphatically that Fenway Park’s ushers probably could have beaten them. The Red Sox outscored Washington 26-9 and outhit them 46-22 as Robinson muttered to himself in the dugout. Good thing no TV people tried to mike him during the series. Say, Frank, how many four-letter words can you spout in half an inning?

Or, to put it more pithily: Curses, foiled again!

But there is no crying in baseball, as Tom Hanks once observed, so the Nats were forced to move onward if not quite upward.

Just like last season, the Nats paraded under false colors for a while. After starting 2-9, they inexplicably went on a 28-25 mini-tear to struggle within four games of .500 before being swept in four games by the unimposing Colorado Rockies. Then they won two of three from the New York Yankees last weekend before imploding in Boston.

Go figure. I bet you can’t.

“Part of it is who you’re playing,” catcher Brian Schneider suggested. “We had no business losing to the Rockies, but the Red Sox are a good team and we were playing at their place. I’ll be able to give you a better answer [for the flip-flops] after this series. If we come back strong …”

If?

For Ryan Zimmerman, the rookie third baseman with the unlimited upside, that walk-off home run against the Yankees on Sunday must feel like a dream. He went 0-for-12 in Boston, reminding us again that nobody beats baseball’s law of averages forever.

“That’s how baseball is,” Zimmerman said impassively. “You can’t worry about it. All you can do is start every game anew, get a hit or two and go from there.”

Trouble is, the Nats didn’t do much going in the early innings against Rodrigo Lopez, a right-hander whose previous labors for the Orioles had yielded a 4-8 record and 6.85 ERA — numbers that threatened to besmirch the lofty reputation of first-year O’s pitching coach Leo Mazzone.

Against the punchless Nats, Lopez had a shutout through six innings, but he wasn’t exactly keeping a powerhouse lineup in check. Nick Johnson was on the disabled list. Alfonso Soriano, Jose Vidro, Jose Guillen and Zimmerman were slumping. The rest of Robinson’s troops had nothing to slump from. In fact, utilityman Marlon Anderson might have been the unlikeliest cleanup hitter in recent baseball history with a .245 average, two homers and nine RBI.

A bright spot for the Nats was the pitching of John Patterson, back in combat after two months on the DL with a strained right forearm. If Patterson wasn’t his customary dominating self, neither was he dogmeat. He held the Orioles, not exactly a bomb squad themselves, to two runs and six hits over six innings before departing. Of course, they were enough to beat him 2-1.

The evening’s most pleasant moment for Robinson might have come after the second inning, when the Jumbotron showed him hitting his 500th run and the sellout crowd of 48,331 gave it up for the former Oriole. Frank took a curtain call, smiling and waving as though he had just belted another at the tender age of 70.

I hope F. Robby enjoyed it, because this figures to be a long, not-so-hot summer.

Eighty-seven games to go.

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