- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 16, 2006

To paraphrase Washington general manager Jim Bowden, when the Nationals pitch well, the club wins.

Therein lies the problem.

While pitching was the team’s greatest strength last season, this year’s bullpen is blowing sizeable leads in agonizing fashion, and the starters, more often than not, are being yanked before the seventh inning.

The Nationals have a long list of problems, but pitching is the biggest reason they are off to a 13-25 start and keeping the Florida Marlins company at the bottom of the National League East.

“This is the first time, wherever I’ve been, that I’ve had a struggle with the bullpen,” Nationals manager Frank Robinson said during the weekend series at the Atlanta Braves.

The bullpen already has played a big role in three losses on this nine-game, three-city road trip that resumes tonight in Chicago against the struggling Cubs at Wrigley Field.

On Wednesday in Cincinnati, the Nationals rallied to tie the game 6-6 before veteran left-hander Mike Stanton allowed three runs on two hits and three walks (two intentional) in the eighth inning of a 9-6 loss.

The following night, Joey Eischen took the mound with the Nationals leading 4-2 in the 11th inning. The left-hander eventually surrendered a three-run, walk-off homer to the Reds’ Ken Griffey Jr. as Cincinnati won 5-4.

While Eischen was the ultimate victim, right-handed relievers Jon Rauch and Felix Rodriguez pitched earlier in the inning and failed to retire a batter.

“When you’re not sure of who to bring in, that’s not a good way to manage,” Robinson said. “Right now, as you’ve seen, we’ve tried different people in the seventh and the eighth, and we’re just not getting the job done.”

The third bullpen meltdown of the road trip came Saturday when Nationals closer Chad Cordero hung a pitch to Braves outfielder Jeff Francoeur, who hit a walk-off grand slam at Turner Field.

Cordero (1-1, 4.58 ERA) has given up six home runs in 172/3 innings. Rodriguez, who was targeted to be this season’s setup man for injured reliever Luis Ayala, has a 6.33 ERA in 211/3 innings. Eischen has a 10.45 ERA.

“I really don’t know why [the bullpen is] struggling. If I had the answer to that, hopefully they wouldn’t be struggling,” Nationals pitching coach Randy St. Claire said. “Whether they’re trying too hard, whether they’re losing focus. … They’re not making quality pitches in situations where they have to make quality pitches. The staff as a whole is struggling for me right now.”

The team ERA is 4.71 after 38 games — 12th out of 16 NL teams. The Nationals are last in the league in saves (three) and tied for 13th in save opportunities (10), which means they haven’t had many late-inning leads to preserve.

“They are not doing the little things that you need to do to be successful, work ahead in counts, first-pitch strikes, work down in the strike zone, mix up your pitches, change speeds, just the little baseball 101-type stuff,” St. Claire said. “Try to keep it simple. Don’t get complicated. We’re not doing it.”

The club’s starters, most notably ace Livan Hernandez, have struggled, too. Hernandez is just 1-4 with a 6.52 ERA and has allowed 19 first-inning runs in eight starts.

“I know I’m going to be better, but I don’t know when,” Hernandez said.

John Patterson, the projected No. 2 starter, won’t be ready until June at the earliest with inflammation in his right arm. Patterson had a breakout season last year (9-7, 3.13 ERA), and big things were expected this season.

The problems with the club’s starters began in spring training. Brian Lawrence, who was projected to be the No. 3 starter, tore his shoulder and is out for the season. Desperate for another starter, the club signed Pedro Astacio just before the beginning of camp. Astacio strained his right forearm in the team’s last exhibition game and has not pitched this season.

Right-hander Ramon Ortiz, signed in the offseason to fill out the rotation, is off to the worst start (0-4, 6.30) of his career. Ryan Drese, who underwent offseason shoulder surgery, is on the DL.

The only real bright among the starters is Tony Armas Jr., who is 4-2 with a 3.02 ERA.

“Winning and losing starts with pitching,” Bowden said. “You can isolate the other problems that we have, but that’s the crux of it.”

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To

submit a question, go to the Sports Page

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