- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 11, 2007

ATLANTA — The Washington Nationals put Matt Chico in their Opening Day rotation not only because of the rookie left-hander’s pitching talent but also because of his ability to handle whatever mental challenges might await him.

If Chico’s demeanor following his first two major league starts is an indication, it appears he will have little problem handling adversity.

The bigger question might be how the Nationals as a team handle the rocky road that lies ahead. With another uninspiring loss last night, this one by an 8-0 count to the Atlanta Braves, Washington extended its season-opening run of misery, with no particular end in sight.

The Nationals have lost five straight, seven of eight and still haven’t given their pitchers a single lead to work with.

“Pretty weak today,” manager Manny Acta said. “It doesn’t matter how much these guys do on the mound, we’ve still got to get something going with the offense. We’re still waiting for that lead. We haven’t gotten a lead yet.”

And now they have been struck by injury again. Reliever Ray King was forced to leave last ‘s game in the ninth inning with inflammation in his throwing shoulder. The veteran left-hander has made only one trip to the disabled list in his career, and he hopes to avoid a second but admits he will have to shut himself down for at least the next few days.

“This is all new to me,” said King, who was tagged for four runs and turned a tight game into a blowout. “I’m hoping in a day or two I’ll get on anti-inflammatories and it’ll just be tendinitis.”

King’s injury was the final negative in another unsightly Nationals loss, one that surely can’t be blamed on Chico, who deserved a far better fate than he received. Despite the 23-year-old’s best efforts to dispatch the Braves’ stacked lineup — one earned run allowed in 42/3 innings — he was done in by shoddy defense behind him and a complete lack of offensive support in front of him.

Few accomplished pitchers would be able to overcome those obstacles. A rookie like Chico (0-1) had virtually no shot, try as he might.

Despite the eventual outcome, the left-hander showed some mettle. He loaded the bases in the first (helped by first baseman Dmitri Young’s error) but escaped the jam by inducing a double-play grounder from Jeff Francoeur. And when the Braves put a man in scoring position with one out in the third, Chico calmly got Edgar Renteria to pop out and then caught Chipper Jones looking at a 3-2 fastball.

“It was encouraging, especially after [the Young error],” Acta said. “The kid’s going to be fine. He’s pretty tough mentally.”

But Chico still is prone to some rookie mistakes, and he made a couple of them last night. First, he hung a 1-1 curveball to Andruw Jones in the fourth and watched as the Braves slugger deposited it into the left-center bleachers, a solo blast that snapped a scoreless tie.

His other big mistake came an inning later, though not until after second baseman Ronnie Belliard muffed a routine popup in shallow right field.

“I don’t know; nobody’s perfect,” the veteran infielder said. “I went out for the popup. I got a bad angle, and I dropped it.”

The mistake proved costly because Chipper Jones followed with a single, and though Chico got Andruw Jones to line out, he couldn’t make one last pitch to Francoeur to get out of the inning. The left-hander’s 1-2 curveball was hammered to deep center field for a two-run double, the defining blow of the game.

Chico said both pitches would have been effective had he kept them down in the strike zone. Instead, he left both up over the plate and paid the price.

“Those are the things I need to learn,” he said. “I’ve got to learn from making mistakes, to keep the ball down. That’s just not the way I wanted it to go.”

Acta left his young starter in to face one more hitter, another move that proved to be a bad one. Brian McCann followed Francoeur’s hit with an RBI double of his own to put Atlanta up 4-0, though only one of the runs was earned because of the Belliard error.

“We’re going to have to start catching the ball,” said Acta, whose club has committed 10 errors in eight games. “But without any type of offense, without any runs, there’s only so much you can do.”

An offense that was just as much to blame for the loss as anything. A lineup that managed just three hits off Arizona Diamondbacks veteran Livan Hernandez on Sunday duplicated the effort against Braves veteran Tim Hudson. Hudson dazzled the Nationals with an assortment of pitches, held them hitless into the fifth inning and departed following the seventh with his shutout intact.

Washington has scored a total of three runs in its last four games.

“Things are not happening,” Acta said. “But also, it wasn’t an easy cookie for us out there. That was Tim Hudson at his best. Too much Hudson for us tonight.”

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