- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 21, 2006

Was it really only 16 days ago when Ramon Ortiz flirted with baseball immortality (a no-hitter) while authoring the Washington Nationals’ best-pitched game of the season?

That feels like ancient history these days because the current Ortiz bears no resemblance to the right-hander who no-hit the St. Louis Cardinals for eight innings Sept. 4.

That Ortiz attacked the strike zone, exuded confidence on the mound and got results. This Ortiz is all over the place, and when he does find the strike zone, opposing hitters often launch the ball into the stratosphere.

“You thought he would build off of [the game against the Cardinals],” manager Frank Robinson said. “But he’s been downhill ever since then.”

The unsuccessful Ortiz took the hill last night for the Nationals, and the results weren’t pretty. The Atlanta Braves pounded the 33-year-old for five runs (four of them scoring on homers) in five innings and sent Washington to a 7-3 loss before 19,027 at RFK Stadium.

It goes down as yet another poor performance by a Washington starting pitcher, the recurring theme of the season, particularly since the All-Star break.

Ortiz (10-15) has been a prime culprit, his recent gem against the Cardinals notwithstanding. In three starts since that dynamite performance at RFK, he’s 0-3 with a 9.37 ERA. Over his last eight outings (including the near no-hitter), he’s 1-6 with an 8.08 ERA, leaving him tied with St. Louis’ Jason Marquis for the league lead in losses.

“It’s unbelievable, man,” Ortiz said. “These three games, I haven’t pitched well.”

His biggest problem lately has been keeping the ball within the stadium’s confines, as last night’s crowd (the third smallest in Nationals history) discovered.

Ortiz was twice touched up by Braves hitters. Catcher Brian McCann delivered a three-run homer in the third, smashing a low fastball to right. Two innings later, Andruw Jones turned on an 0-1 inside slider and sent it sailing down the left-field line. The only question was whether it would stay fair or turn foul, a quandary that was answered when the ball clanked off the foul pole for a solo homer.

It was the sixth home run surrendered by Ortiz in his last three starts and the 31st overall this season. Only Marquis (33) has allowed more among National League pitchers.

“All the times I make mistakes this year, it’s a home run,” he said. “I like to pitch good. I like to have fun every day. I’m not having fun right now. But I’m a positive guy. I’ve got two more games. I’m going to keep it going.”

Jeff Francoeur added another solo homer in the sixth, connecting off reliever Chris Booker to extend Atlanta’s lead and make life easier for starter Lance Cormier, who far outpitched his counterpart.

Cormier (4-5) gave up just two runs over 61/3 innings, with Ryan Zimmerman playing a key role in producing both of Washington’s runs. The rookie third baseman had been in a slump for about a week, leaving his NL Rookie of the Year candidacy in question and prompting Robinson to give him a rare night off Monday.

The brief respite appears to have done Zimmerman good. He had two hits Tuesday, including a sharply hit RBI double, and followed that up with another two-hit performance last night that included his first home run in 18 days.

“You hope that is him gaining his confidence back, putting a good swing on it and getting results,” Robinson said. “That’s the results you’d like to see after giving a guy a day or two off.”

Zimmerman went deep in the first, drilling a 3-2 pitch from Cormier well over the left-field fence for his 19th homer and 99th RBI. One more notch in each of those marquee categories, and the 21-year-old should strengthen his rookie of the year case.

“You don’t think about [20 homers and 100 RBI], but if you get there, it’s a good accomplishment for your first year,” he said. “But I don’t go out and play the game just to try to get my stats.”

Aside from Zimmerman, the Nationals couldn’t put much of anything else together offensively. They stranded men on second and third in the fourth, had two runners called out on bang-bang plays at second base in the fifth and again stranded men on second and third in the seventh when Alfonso Soriano (2-for-13 in the series) and Felipe Lopez (0-for-12) each grounded out.

“It seems like when [Soriano] doesn’t get on consistently, Lopez doesn’t have a good ballgame,” Robinson said.

And when Ortiz doesn’t pitch well, the Nationals don’t have much chance to win.

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