Wednesday, May 2, 2007

SAN DIEGO — Manny Acta can recite the stats off the top of his head.

His Washington Nationals rank last in the National League in batting average, last in runs scored, second-to-last in home runs, second-to-last in stolen bases, second-to-last in runners left on base and dead last in slugging percentage.

The numbers don’t lie: Acta’s club hasn’t been able to hit all season, and the lack of production is costing it legitimate chances to win ballgames.

So even when the Nationals get quality pitching performances like they did from Shawn Hill last night, they’re largely going to waste. Despite another fine start from Hill (three runs and four hits in 6 1/3 innings), Washington’s lineup was rendered helpless by San Diego Padres right-hander Chris Young in a 3-0 loss before 19,438 at Petco Park.

The 6-foot-10 Young surrendered just three hits over eight sterling innings before handing things over to all-time saves king Trevor Hoffman in the ninth. In the process, the duo handed the Nationals their second shutout loss in three days, further evidence of this team’s inability to produce at the plate.

Washington (9-18) ended the night with a .230 team average and a .326 slugging percentage that is more than 30 points lower than the next-worst NL club. The team’s 81 runs scored this season are far and away the fewest in the majors.

“We’re not getting it done, and we’ve got to get better,” right fielder Austin Kearns said. “It’s embarrassing.”

Acta has tried to remain positive through it all, believing his guys are simply stuck in an early season funk and they eventually will snap out of it.

“It’s going to get better, because these guys are better than that,” the manager said. “I mean, [Ryan] Zimmerman is a better hitter than that. So is Kearns and so is [Dmitri] Young. It’s going to get better than that.”

But so far, it hasn’t gotten better. Zimmerman is hitting .230 with one homer and seven RBI. Kearns is hitting a respectable .282, but he has driven in only seven runs. And Young’s average has dipped to .245, costing him his cleanup spot in the lineup.

The victim of all this has been the Nationals’ starting rotation, which has actually pitched quite well over the last week. In the last eight games, Washington starters own a league-best 2.88 ERA, yet have only recorded three victories due to the lack of run support.

“We can’t keep saying, ‘It’s all right. The season’s early, we’re going to get out of it.’ That’s not acceptable,” catcher Brian Schneider said. “We need to get the job done now. … The pitching staff’s doing the job for us right now. We need to get them some freaking runs.”

Last night’s hard-luck loser was Hill, who had been a model of consistency from the get-go this season, allowing exactly two earned runs in each of his first five starts. So it was hardly surprising when he came out last night and went right to work on the Padres. He retired eight of the first nine batters he faced but put a scare in the Nationals during the 10th at-bat.

With two outs in the third, San Diego’s Jose Cruz Jr. roped a hard grounder to the right side of the infield. Young made a nice diving play to stop the ball, then tried to throw to Hill covering first from his knees. Young’s aim was off, though, and Hill had to contort his body in a failed attempt to catch the ball. He wound up falling to the ground and remained there for a few seconds.

Upon returning to the mound, Hill was greeted by Acta, pitching coach Randy St. Claire and head trainer Lee Kuntz, and it quickly became apparently the hurler had re-injured the left shoulder he bruised diving into third base two weeks ago in Florida.

Hill grimaced some as he made a couple of warm-up tosses, but he insisted he was OK to continue and proved that was the case with his effective work from then on.

“For the first 10, 15 seconds, yeah, it hurt,” he said. “It was pretty bad at first, but then it was one of those that wears off. It’s almost like rolling your ankle. You kind of walk it off a little bit.”

The right-hander wound up making only a couple of costly mistakes. In the fourth, San Diego manager Bud Black put on the hit-and-run and watched as Adrian Gonzalez smoked a double down the right-field line. Brian Giles came around to score, and the Padres had themselves a 1-0 lead. Then in the seventh, Hill walked Mike Cameron and surrendered a run-scoring triple to Kevin Kouzmanoff off the right-field wall on his final pitch of the game. Kouzmanoff wound up scoring moments later on a picture-perfect squeeze bunt by Oscar Robles.

Hill (2-3) didn’t take much satisfaction out of his quality start.

“I thought I threw the ball terrible, personally,” the sinkerball specialist said. “A lot of hard-hit balls. A lot of fly balls, which is not good for me. A lot of walks, which is not good for me. … I kind of kept us in it, but I really didn’t throw the ball the way I’d like to.”

It really didn’t matter how Hill pitched last night, not with Young excelling on the other side. The two right-handers used to be roommates while prospects with the Montreal Expos, but they’ve kept minimal contact since Young was traded to Texas in 2004 for backup catcher Einar Diaz.

Young was highly efficient in mowing down his former organization. Only Kearns, who singled in the second, and Schneider, who doubled in the fifth and singled in the eighth, managed to connect off him. Young (3-2) never allowed more than one man to reach base in a single inning.

“He’s a good pitcher,” Zimmerman said. “You don’t take anything away from him. But we got into good counts. It’s like we were just missing our pitch. It seems like it’s happening to everybody at the same time.”

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