- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 16, 2007

If the last six weeks have taught Manny Acta anything, the Washington Nationals manager knows he needs a quality performance from his starting pitcher for his team to have a chance at winning any given night.

The Nationals simply don’t have the offensive power to overcome a poor start — or worse, an abbreviated start.

So when Acta went to the mound with no outs in the third last night and learned right-hander Jerome Williams needed to be removed with a shoulder injury, the Washington manager probably had an inkling this game was not going to go his way.

Sure enough, Williams’ strained rotator cuff (not to mention the five runs he allowed in limited action) was too much for the Nationals to handle. They went quietly the rest of the evening, dominated by Atlanta Braves pitcher Tim Hudson in a 6-2 loss before 21,258 at RFK Stadium.

One night after getting a great outing from Jason Bergmann, who bested future Hall of Famer John Smoltz, the Nationals couldn’t get a comparable effort from their other 25-year-old starter against another great Braves pitcher. Hudson, perhaps the National League’s best pitcher this season, carried a perfect game into the fifth and allowed just one run on three hits over seven innings to improve to 5-1 and lower his ERA to 1.77.

“You trail 5-0 against him with the way he’s been throwing the ball, it’s basically from then on, ‘How long is the game going to last now?’ Because he’s just been that dominant,” Acta said.

Making his first appearance since a sprained left ankle landed him on the disabled list April 28, Williams may have knocked himself back out of action. He will have an MRI today and is likely headed back to the disabled list, joining fellow rotation mates John Patterson and Shawn Hill.

“I don’t even know what’s going on right now,” a dejected Williams said. “I mean, I pitch fine; I get put on the DL. I pitch fine; I came off that. And now this. I don’t know what’s going on right now.”

This wasn’t what Acta was looking for in Williams’ first start in 17 days and certainly not what he was looking for from his team after a four-game winning streak.

Still, the rookie manager had realistic expectations from his starter: keep his team in the game.

Williams, though, couldn’t even meet that basic requirement. He ran into trouble in the first, allowing a two-run homer to Edgar Renteria, and he came unglued in the third when he allowed four straight singles to open the inning.

The third hit actually struck Williams in the backside, bringing a visit from trainer Lee Kuntz. But that wasn’t the real problem. After surrendering another single to the next batter, Williams felt “a pull” in his throwing shoulder and motioned for Kuntz to return from the dugout.

After a brief consultation, he walked slowly off the field, his record now 0-5, his ERA a hefty 7.20 and his shoulder injured for the first time in his career.

“It’s new to me, and it’s very, very frustrating,” Williams said. “It’s sore. I’ve never felt that kind of pain before.”

It wouldn’t have mattered how well a healthy Williams pitched last night, not the way Hudson was. The 31-year-old right-hander has been electric all season and has feasted on Washington hitting since coming to the NL two years ago. In five previous starts against the franchise, he owned a 1.30 ERA, and last month he threw seven shutout innings at Turner Field.

So it was little surprise last night when Hudson was in complete control from the start. He retired the first 14 batters he faced, carrying a perfect game into the fifth inning that featured only one ball hit to the outfield.

Hudson’s bid for baseball immortality was quashed in that fifth inning when Brian Schneider drew a two-out walk and Robert Fick followed with a sharp grounder past first baseman Scott Thorman for the Nationals’ first single of the evening. A subsequent single by ex-Braves player Ryan Langerhans brought a run home, but it was far too late for a rally at that point.

Washington’s players only could try to figure just what makes Hudson so good.

“That’s a question you can ask the whole league to try to answer,” Schneider said. “He’s effective. He’s got a lot of different pitches, and tonight he had everything working. There’s a reason why he’s top three in the league in ERA. He’s tough, and he’s having a great year so far.”

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