- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 17, 2007

TORONTO — The Washington Nationals went on a blind date of sorts with Shaun Marcum yesterday afternoon.

Knowing nothing about the Toronto Blue Jays right-hander, aside from a few tidbits culled from video and scouting reports, the Nationals arrived at Rogers Centre for a Saturday matinee with an open mind about the 26-year-old, hoping for the best.

Washington’s hitters would be happy not to see Marcum again after being thoroughly dominated by the young control specialist during yesterday’s 7-3 loss.

“He did a tremendous job,” manager Manny Acta said. “He’s got offspeed pitches, and he’s got good command of them. We couldn’t adjust to them all day.”

Marcum’s seven-inning, 11-strikeout performance, coupled with another shaky start from rookie Levale Speigner, left the Nationals to contemplate their second straight uninspiring loss to Toronto. A club that arrived north of the border flying high following a 5-1 start to their nine-game road trip now must win today’s finale to avoid a sweep at the hands of the sub-.500 Blue Jays.

Acta’s bunch can only hope to snap out of the funk it has gotten itself into after two lackluster offensive showings here. Fresh off a 7-2 loss to former Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay, the Nationals were equally inept trying to hit Marcum, a reliever-turned-starter who has looked quite impressive since joining the Toronto rotation a month ago. In seven starts, he’s now 3-0 with a 2.38 ERA.

If only the Nationals (29-39) had a better idea what they were getting into when they woke up yesterday morning.

“You can get a scouting report and watch video,” center fielder Ryan Langerhans said. “But when you haven’t seen a guy, you’re not really going to get a feel for what he has until you get up there in the box and see what his pitches are doing.”

What the Nationals eventually saw was a young right-hander who doesn’t overpower hitters with fastballs but taunts them with an assortment of offspeed pitches, none better than his devastating change-up.

“It had some good action at the end, looked like the bottom was jumping out of them,” said Austin Kearns, who managed to draw a pair of walks. “I don’t know what to tell you. We just didn’t hit.”

Marcum (4-2) wasted no time making his presence known before a crowd of 26,342. He struck out the side in the first on 10 pitches, all strikes.

Only Dmitri Young and Ryan Zimmerman got to him, lofting a couple of solo homers to left in the second and fourth innings, respectively. Otherwise, Washington’s hitters struggled against Marcum, who struck out everyone in the lineup other than Kearns and Langerhans.

Then again, the Nationals couldn’t make contact against anyone the Blue Jays sent to the mound yesterday. Marcum and relievers Brian Tallet and Casey Janssen combined to record 14 strikeouts, whiffing Ryan Church three times and Felipe Lopez four times.

“Sometimes, you’ve got to give them credit,” Zimmerman said. “We’ve got to do a better job of not striking out, everyone, but they made some good pitches and their starter was tough.”

Speigner, on the other hand, was decidedly not. The rookie right-hander was tagged for seven runs and 10 hits in only 31/3 innings, a rough outing that bore plenty of resemblance to his first four starts this season and looked nothing like his two-hit gem in Minnesota only a week ago.

“It’s just frustrating going out and having a good one and then following it up with what happened today,” he said. “But that’s part of it. That’s part of my learning process.”

What Speigner (2-3) learned was that he can’t be particularly effective when he can’t command his slider or his curveball and has to rely exclusively on his fastball. That much was evident from the start, when he hung an 0-2 slider to Alex Rios and watched the leadoff man triple to right-center.

The Blue Jays did most of their damage in the third, plating four runs on four hits, including a two-run homer by Vernon Wells on a hanging slider.

“For some reason, they kept going to that slider and it was hanging,” Acta said. “He got hurt the whole day on that slider. Those are the type of things you have to learn here with experience. When something’s not working, you go to the next one and go from there.”

Where Speigner goes from here remains to be seen. His next turn would fall on Thursday, an off-day for the Nationals. Considering his struggles, he might be skipped in the rotation.

“There’s been some success, and obviously there have been some failures,” said Speigner, whose ERA now stands at 8.76. “So I’ll take the good and the bad and learn from it all.”

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