- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 10, 2007

If their 1-6 record isn’t enough to make the Washington Nationals cringe, consider the following supplemental evidence regarding the first week of the 2007 season:

• The Nationals were outscored 45-18 in seven games against the Florida Marlins and Arizona Diamondbacks, including 22-0 in innings 1 to 3.

• They went until Game 7 before finally getting a “quality start” from a member of their rotation (six innings, three earned runs or less) and didn’t have a single pitcher on the staff emerge without surrendering at least one run.

• Those pitchers allowed 104 runners to reach base in 63 total innings for an average of 1.65 an inning.

• The offense hit a combined .245 with a .317 on-base percentage and a .371 slugging percentage that is eight points worse than Cristian Guzman’s career mark in that category.

• Washington became the first team in the modern era to trail at least 4-0 in each of its first six games.

• And the stat to end all stats: There have been 557 plate appearances in the season to date. The Nationals have held the lead after one of them.

“It was a tough week, no doubt about it,” catcher Brian Schneider said. “Nobody wants to start like this.”

Not unless there are any masochists inside Washington’s clubhouse. And even if there are, it’s doubtful they could have taken any pleasure in the events of the past week, a week so wretched it left several players making self-deprecating remarks Sunday to try to ease the pain.

“At least we know how to play from behind late in the game,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman joked. “I guess you could look at it that way.”

The Nationals got plenty of practice at that because they trailed in every game at RFK Stadium. They managed to come all the way back to win once, scoring three runs in the ninth Wednesday to beat the Marlins 7-6.

Imagine how ugly this might be had they not pulled that one out.

Washington fans were somewhat prepared for this worst-case scenario. Ever since ownership and general manager Jim Bowden made it clear they weren’t going to invest money in free agents last winter and instead devote all their resources to scouting and player development, the club was pegged for disaster in 2007.

Media outlets around the country predicted the Nationals would finish last in the NL East and rank 30th among baseball’s 30 teams. Scouts who watched them in person this spring predicted historically high loss totals, well more than 100 and in some cases all the way up to 130 (most in major league history).

Inside the Nationals’ clubhouse and staff offices, though, everyone shrugged off the doom-and-gloom talk. No one predicted a World Series title this season, but no one predicted record-setting futility, either.

Players maintained their stance following Sunday’s loss to Arizona, insisting the clubhouse remains positive.

“We’re still fine,” right-hander Shawn Hill said. “It’s definitely not as upbeat as it would be if we were reeling off three, four, five [wins]. But it’s a long season, and we just haven’t got off to the hottest start.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise to Washington’s unsightly start has been the lack of offense. Team officials knew pitching (specifically from the rotation) was going to be a problem area from the beginning, but all were adamant the lineup would be better than it was a year ago.

That hasn’t come close to being the case. The Nationals have averaged 1.8 runs in their six losses, primarily because of a complete lack of clutch hitting.

In their first 30 at-bats against the Diamondbacks with runners in scoring position, they produced zero hits. The problem hasn’t been getting men on base. It has been driving them in.

“We haven’t held up our part at all in this first week,” said right fielder Austin Kearns, who has been bumped down from the cleanup spot to the 5-hole. “We definitely have to do better. … To not be able to do anything [to support our starting pitcher], there’s no worse feeling for a position player. You ask any of us, if our starter goes and gives up two or three runs, we’ll take that every time. We just haven’t got it done.”

Prolonged offensive slumps are nothing new in baseball, and certainly every team goes through them at various points of the season. But when it happens the first week of April, it draws a lot more attention.

“It’s always going to be like that,” center fielder Ryan Church said. “It’s going to be magnified. You always want to come out of the gate swinging the bats and putting up runs, but it’s just been tough. We’ll bounce back. We’re paid to hit, so eventually we’re going to come around.”

Not that things get any easier for the Nationals. After a brief respite yesterday, they boarded their charter plane and headed south to Atlanta for three games against the Braves (with dual aces Tim Hudson and John Smoltz starting two of this week’s games). From there, they move north to New York for three games against the reigning division champion Mets.

On the bright side, Washington finally gets to bat first in a game, so there’s a chance the lineup actually could give the starting pitcher an early lead to work with for a change.

“That’s a good way to look at it,” manager Manny Acta said. “Because at home, it seems like every time we come to the plate, we’ve been trailing. So now we’ll be able to hit before we’re trailing, at least.”

Want more Nats? Check out Nats Home Plate.

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