- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 8, 2007

MILWAUKEE — For weeks, Manny Acta had pined for the day he would get his starting lineup back. The Washington Nationals manager had experienced perhaps no more comforting feeling than he did yesterday afternoon when he penciled the names of Cristian Guzman and Nook Logan onto his lineup card for the first time since Opening Day.

Too bad Washington’s new-look starting nine was equally as inept at the plate as the previous group.

The fast-fading Nationals were dominated by Milwaukee Brewers left-hander Chris Capuano during a 3-0 loss before 17,751 at Miller Park that served as the latest reminder how offensively challenged this group is.

Washington (9-23) entered the game batting a National League-worst .229 and lived down to its reputation, getting shut out for the third time in its last eight games and wasting an effective performance from rookie starter Matt Chico.

“What can we say? We’re struggling,” said Acta, whose team has lost six straight. “We’re going to grind it out. We’re going to keep working. And we’re going to get out of it.”

Acta had hoped the coinciding returns of Guzman and Logan — each had been on the disabled list since getting hurt in the season’s first game — would provide a spark to his slumping club. Though both players are known more for defense than offensive production, both possess the kind of speed few other regulars on this team can claim to have, and that should allow Acta to get more creative on the bases.

Of course, that’s only applicable when the Nationals actually get on base with regularity, something that hasn’t been happening for weeks and certainly didn’t happen last night.

Capuano (5-0) dominated Washington’s lineup in an eight-plus inning performance that included zero walks and an astounding 74 of his 98 pitches for strikes.

“It’s tough when you run into a pitcher like that,” left fielder Ryan Church said. “Especially a left-hander who can command all his pitches and throw anything for strikes.”

Acta has been harping on his players to be more selective at the plate and make the opposing pitcher work, but the Nationals couldn’t afford to be too patient with Capuano the way he was attacking the strike zone.

Logan discovered that early on. He saw five pitches from the Milwaukee left-hander in three at-bats last night, flying out on an 0-2 pitch in the third, then grounding out and flying out on the first pitches of the fifth and seventh respectively.

“I was just a little excited,” said Logan, who missed the last five weeks with a sprained left foot. “I was trying to do things too quick. Instead of just sitting back and letting things happen, I was trying to make things happen.”

Guzman, who strained his left hamstring Opening Day, enjoyed slightly more success in his return. The shortstop went 1-for-4 with a fourth-inning single up the middle, and he helped turn a pair of double plays (though he also committed an error).

Lost among the ongoing offensive struggles was a strong pitching performance from Chico, who shook off some previous rough outings to allow just three runs in seven innings.

“That’s what we want to see,” Acta said. “We want to see progress in these young kids like him, especially after he’s been inconsistent this year. He showed today again that he can handle it here.”

Chico’s primary problem during the first month-plus of his major league career has been a lack of command. He’s usually gotten into trouble when he falls behind in the count, and his high pitch counts prevented him from lasting more than 51/3 innings in any of his first six starts.

So it had to be an encouraging sign for the Nationals when the 23-year-old left-hander went out last night and pounded the strike zone for a change. If anything, Chico might have been too much around the plate, particularly during a second-inning flurry of hits by Milwaukee.

Chico allowed three straight singles to Bill Hall, Johnny Estrada and Kevin Mench — Hall was gunned down trying to steal second — then left a 1-0 slider over the plate to Geoff Jenkins that wound up landing beyond the center-field fence for a three-run homer.

“I think I was more relaxed than in the previous six,” he said. “Unfortunately, I gave up the home run on a slider. But I think I improved on my offspeed [pitches] for strikes, and I think that helped me out a lot.”

That string of at-bats looked like they might spell doom for Chico (2-4), but the rookie rebounded nicely and wound up with perhaps his best overall performance to date. Working fast and keeping the ball around the plate — 68 of his 93 pitches were strikes — he avoided any further damage while pitching into the seventh inning for the first time.

But Chico’s best came on a night Capuano was even better.

“It is frustrating, but we can’t get down on ourselves,” Church said. “It’s a long, long season. We’ll turn around.”

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