Thursday, June 28, 2007

ATLANTA — Manny Acta, as Nationals fans know by now, is optimistic even in the most dismal situations.

Not even Washington’s rookie manager, though, could find something encouraging about his club’s abysmal showing against the Atlanta Braves this week.

“We just got outplayed across the board the whole series,” he said.

No one would argue. The Nationals came to Turner Field on Monday hoping to extend their success on the road against a Braves club that was reeling from five straight losses and all sorts of in-house controversy.

When they left last night, their roles were partially reversed. A 13-0 drubbing before 29,144 at Turner Field capped a horrid series for Washington, which was swept out of town by a combined score of 23-3.

Suddenly, a Nationals squad that was steadily showing signs of progress again has fallen on hard times, losing nine of 12 games to fall 14 under .500 heading into a weekend series at Pittsburgh.

As they quietly showered and dressed in their clubhouse last night, players couldn’t help but wonder whether they had just blown an opportunity to take out a struggling Atlanta team.

“Definitely,” said outfielder Ryan Langerhans, a former Braves player. “We’ve been playing pretty good, and they’ve been scuffling a little bit. You’d like to come in and win every series, especially as well as we’ve been playing on the road. It just didn’t work out that way.”

Losses by scores of 4-1 and 6-2 in the first two games of this series were bad enough, but last night’s whitewashing was worse. The Nationals surrendered 22 hits to the Braves, the franchise’s most since the then-Expos gave up the same number to the Anaheim Angels on June 3, 2003. They were out of it by the fifth inning, at which point Acta and Atlanta manager Bobby Cox began pulling regulars in favor of rarely used backups.

The man suffering the brunt of the punishment was Micah Bowie, a left-hander who rarely finds himself on the losing end of such a lopsided game.

Bowie entered the game a model of consistency for the Nationals, having held opponents to no more than three runs in any of his seven previous starts while establishing himself as a potential long-term solution in the rotation.

But in this outing he was roughed up for six runs and nine hits in only 31/3 innings. The 32-year-old hadn’t allowed that many runs in a single appearance since Sept. 6, 1999, when he was a hard-throwing young pitcher with the Chicago Cubs.

“I take it that I got my butt kicked and didn’t give my team a chance to win,” he said. “Every time I made a mistake, it showed up on the board. That’s a good-hitting club, and they came in here and beat us.”

Bowie was already getting hit around pretty hard by the fourth inning, when the Braves delivered their biggest blow. Second baseman Yunel Escobar (who matched a career high with four hits) scorched a line drive back up the middle, hitting Bowie flush on the left shin. The pitcher fell to the ground, bounced up and took a knee as trainers, coaches and teammates raced to the mound to check on him.

“That ball hit me so dang quick, I didn’t have time to think about anything,” he said.

Bowie, who was walking with a slight limp following the game but said he will be fine to make his next start, stayed in last night’s game for one more batter. Once Edgar Renteria followed Escobar’s smash with an RBI single to right, there was little reason for him to stick around and suffer more punishment.

“He just didn’t have it,” Acta said. “His offspeed stuff was just flat, right down the middle of the plate, every one of them. And also he wasn’t able to finish hitters. There were a few guys he had two strikes, and he wasn’t able to finish them. That cost him.”

The Braves didn’t let up once they knocked Bowie from the game. Luis Ayala was first out of the bullpen and was greeted with three straight run-scoring singles. Billy Traber followed and proceeded to surrender five runs on seven hits (including a Brian McCann homer) over the next two innings, capping a series in which his ERA skyrocketed from 1.59 to 4.71.

Of course, it didn’t really matter who pitched for Washington last night, not with the club’s fast-fading lineup struggling again. The Nationals were shut out for the seventh time this season, managing just five hits off John Smoltz (who was lifted after five innings) to complete a wretched series.

“I’m not going to complain now, because we’ve been at the bottom of every offensive category from day one,” Acta said. “Why complain now? We’ve just got to keep grinding it out and working hard. Hopefully it will get better.”

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