- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 17, 2006

CHICAGO — The Washington Nationals continued their slide with a 4-0 loss to the Chicago Cubs last night.

The Nationals put forth a feeble effort against Cubs right-hander Carlos Zambrano. Despite getting a decent outing from Livan Hernandez, they killed themselves with a string of defensive miscues. And ultimately, they lost for the fifth time in seven games on their current road trip.

Nationals general manager Jim Bowden closed the door to Frank Robinson’s office at Wrigley Field following the game and did not emerge until 27 minutes had passed since the final out of the night.

Neither Robinson nor Bowden would divulge the details of their meeting. Robinson described it only as “just sitting here chatting” about the state of a ballclub that has now lost twice as many games (26) as it has won (13) during a brutal season-opening stretch.

Changes could be forthcoming, with a host of minor leaguers (particularly pitchers) posting impressive numbers and just waiting to get the call. That said, both Bowden and Robinson insist there are no cure-alls in the farm system. Only a handful of players who could make some small impact.

And so, the Nationals are going to have to try to dig themselves out of this gigantic hole on their own.

It might help if they started hitting the ball with some semblance of authority or consistency. They certainly didn’t last night during a feeble four-hit effort against Zambrano (2-2) and closer Ryan Dempster.

So what was the problem?

“The problem? Not hitting,” Robinson said. “We weren’t able to hit tonight, we weren’t able to handle Zambrano. It’s not the first night they didn’t hit. We’ve been in this rut all season long.”

Maybe so, but rarely have the Nationals looked as helpless at the plate as they did last night. All four hits off Zambrano were singles. Only two runners managed to reach second base all game.

Zambrano mixed in more off-speed pitches than normal to baffle the visiting team.

“It was different from the past I’ve seen,” said shortstop Royce Clayton, who was expecting the right-hander to throw fastballs as much as 90 percent of the time. “I know he wasn’t close to that count tonight. He kept us off-balance pretty well.”

And because of that, it almost didn’t matter that Hernandez (1-5) turned in one of his better outings of the season for the Nationals: seven innings, four runs allowed (only two earned).

Washington’s biggest concern coming in was whether Hernandez could make it through the first inning without surrendering a run. He had, after all, been tagged for 18 first-inning runs in his eight previous starts. So when the big right-hander cruised through a 1-2-3 inning, thanks to a pair of nice plays by Ryan Zimmerman and Jose Vidro, the sigh of relief emanating from the first-base dugout was palpable.

Hernandez kept on cruising, right through the second and third innings, before trouble finally found him in the fourth. He allowed the night’s first run, then loaded the bases with one out and worked the count full against No. 8 hitter Ronny Cedeno.

The runners broke on the pitch, and when Cedeno sent a line drive toward left field. The crowd of 39,298 began to cheer the obvious run-scoring hit. But Alfonso Soriano somehow managed a shoestring catch and then fired to second to double-up Jacque Jones before Aramis Ramirez could tag up from third.

What could have been a huge inning for the Cubs instead turned into a huge escape act for Hernandez and the Nationals.

If only Hernandez could have carried his good fortunes over into the fifth inning when things fell completely apart during a brief-but-unsightly stretch.

It began when Clayton threw high to first for an inning-opening error, allowing Zambrano to reach. Juan Pierre attempted to sacrifice his teammate over but wound up beating the bunt out when catcher Wiki Gonzalez hesitated to throw. Matt Murton attempted a sacrifice of his own and also reached when Hernandez slipped trying to set his feet.

Just like that, the bases were loaded with no outs and no balls hit out of the infield. Todd Walker changed that, driving a 1-0 pitch from Hernandez past a diving Vidro at second for a two-run single. Hernandez amazingly recorded another double play after that, on a line-drive comebacker, but still surrendered one more unearned run when Ramirez doubled to deep right-center.

“One bad inning, that’s it,” he said.

That was enough to send Hernandez to yet another loss. He departed after the seventh, having allowed only two earned runs but still having failed to earn his elusive second win of the year.

“A couple bunts, a couple breaks went their way,” Clayton said. “That just kind of opened up the inning. Unfortunately, they scored a couple of runs. I think that’s all [Zambrano] needed. Once he got a couple of runs, it just fell into a pattern and he sailed the way through the rest of the game.”

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