- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 21, 2007

It remains tempting to pin the Washington Nationals’ chances of overcoming yet another injury to a member of its rotation on the latest remotely able-armed fellow to climb the mound and give a starting gig a try.

In reality, the Nationals need an oft-sputtering offense to provide a modicum of support no matter who is on the hill.

That lesson was learned again last night as Washington stumbled to a 3-1 loss to Colorado before 27,581 at RFK Stadium despite the solid work of stopgap starter Billy Traber.

Perhaps some of it was the absence of first baseman Dmitri Young (bruised left heel) for all put a pinch-hitting appearance. Or maybe it was just a spectacular evening for Rockies pitcher Aaron Cook, who gamely tamed the Nationals (40-56) for seven innings while establishing a career-high with eight strikeouts.

Of course, it was nothing new for a team that ranks last in the majors in runs and fell to 2-30 while scoring less than three runs.

“At least you had a good positive side with the pitching,” manager Manny Acta said. “You have to look at the positive side. We’ve had countless nights like tonight offensively, so one more night is not going to make me feel bad. Let’s not crucify the whole team now. We won three out of the last four games and the question wasn’t brought up.”

Washington’s one chance at a rally was spoiled by third baseman Ryan Zimmerman’s baserunning blunder. With two runners in scoring position and one out in the eighth, Zimmerman darted from second on Austin Kearns’ popup to shallow right. Zimmerman was easily doubled off to extinguish the rally.

“It was a bad mistake,” Zimmerman said. “I can’t do anything about it now.”

It was hardly the only problem for the Nationals’ offense, which could not decipher Cook’s sinker. The right-hander, whose talents are sublimely suited for the extreme altitude of Coors Field, acclimated himself nicely in his first start at the polar opposite of the Land of the Humidor — pitcher-friendly RFK.

Cook (6-6) short-circuited a pair of potential trouble spots with inning-ending double-play grounders, and also relied on a rare burst of strikeouts. Cook hardly is an MLB neophyte — last night was his 103rd career start — but he had managed only three outings of at least six strikeouts and entered with a major-league low 2.82 strikeouts-per-nine innings for the Rockies (49-47).

He already matched his career-best of seven when he encountered his first sustained difficulty of the night in the seventh. And sure enough, Cook escaped the jam with a called third strike on Nook Logan to complete his night’s work.

“He was just nasty …,” Acta said. “He kept that power sinker in the low to mid 90s, and a sharp slider. When you have a good combination of sinker-slider like he has, when you’re on, guys are in trouble, and he was. Anytime he had guys in scoring position or on the bases, he just got tougher.”

Added Zimmerman: “[The sinker is] about as heavy as it gets. It’s tough, especially when it starts down the middle and goes off the plate inside or starts off the plate outside and have it come back. You kind of have to pick a side of the plate and almost guess.”

Cook’s dominance ensured the latest pitcher to get a look in Washington’s piecemeal rotation would leave without a victory. Acta said Traber, a southpaw who filled in for disabled list-bound right-hander Jason Simontacchi and became the 11th man to earn a starting nod this season, would be restricted to about 60 pitches.

When Traber (2-1) needed only 17 tosses to mow through two innings, there was a sense perhaps he could provide five innings of work. Instead, a troublesome two-run third dashed any such optimism.

Traber walked Cook, then surrendered a bunt single and made an errant throw on an ensuing bunt to load the bases with the Rockies’ handful of redoubtable sluggers coming up.

In that sense, it was a coup to just surrender two runs, the first on a forceout of Matt Holliday, the second on Todd Helton’s long fly to the warning track.

“I made two pretty good mistakes. I walked the pitcher, and that’s not good,” Traber said. “Then they give you an out with a bunt and make [a bad throw], I don’t really call it nickel-and-diming. I kind of made my own mess.”

Still, he departed after four innings trailing 2-0, hardly a troubling position to leave a team in an emergency situation. Then again, it meant Washington would have to make up those runs eventually. And as has been the case so often this season, it didn’t happen.

Of course, no one would have guessed it would be a basic error on the bases by Zimmerman that would thwart Washington’s nascent rally and all but consign it to yet another run-starved loss.

“He got confused,” Acta said. “He thought there was two outs. People make mistakes. You see that a lot of times in baseball. It’s not like he makes a lot of baserunning mistakes. He just forgot how many outs there were. It’s no big deal.”



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