- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 22, 2008

ATLANTA — Tim Hudson’s mastery of the Washington Nationals was nowhere near as clean as it usually is. And yet the effect the Atlanta Braves pitcher had on them last night might never have been more profound.

In his office, manager Manny Acta was pointing to the 10 hits Washington got off Hudson in 62/3 innings as a sign his team is about to turn a corner, stopping just short of apologizing for being happy after a 7-3 loss.

Just down the hall, hitting coach Lenny Harris was consoling Wily Mo Pena as the teary-eyed left fielder tried to make sense of an 0-for-4 night, including two of Hudson’s three strikeouts.

The pitcher who dominates the Nationals more than anyone in the major leagues didn’t lull them to sleep last night. They took pitches against him, fouled off two-strike deliveries and punched balls to the opposite field. But after its loss to the Braves, this team has dropped 15 of its last 17. And whatever measure of confidence the Nationals drew from fighting back against Hudson will have to be tempered with the fact they might have been able to beat him.

Starter Matt Chico gave up five hits to the Braves’ sixth, seventh and eighth hitters, and the Nationals stranded 11 runners on base, continuing to get one hit when they needed two.

“If somebody said we’d have had [10] hits against Tim Hudson, I would’ve figure we would have beat him up pretty bad,” catcher Johnny Estrada said. “We’ve got to try to bunch them together, score more runs when we have chances.”

The Nationals (5-15) showed some of the plate discipline Acta has been preaching all season. Four of the team’s five batters in the first inning took Hudson’s first pitch, managing two hits and a walk against him, and only nine of the 30 batters Hudson faced swung at his first offering.

“You shouldn’t be happy losing another game,” Acta said. “But the fact we swung the bat as well as we did because it’s a sign that better things are coming.”

It was the first time Hudson failed to get through the seventh inning against Washington since June 5, 2006. And all the Nationals’ patience might have meant something if Chico had been able to keep Atlanta close.

Atlanta scored six runs in the first three innings against Chico, including three in the second when Brian McCann led off with a homer and was followed with back-to-back singles from Matt Diaz and Gregor Blanco. Hudson moved both runners over with a sacrifice bunt, and Martin Prado drove them in with a double to the left-field corner.

“He just didn’t have it,” Estrada said. “He battled toward the end. He started to get pitches down, but the damage had already been done.”

And a chance to counter it was already gone.

After Kearns’ two-out single to short right in the first inning, Cristian Guzman tried to score from second on the rocket-armed Jeff Francoeur and was tagged out by McCann at the plate. That was a calculated gamble, given the fact that runs against Hudson are usually scarce.

But in the sixth, Felipe Lopez tried to go from second to home after Rob Mackowiak hit a ball to second baseman Prado that was deflected to short for his first base hit of the year. Shortstop Yunel Escobar picked up the ball and gunned down Lopez with room to spare at home.

“The first one, you just have to give credit to Francoeur. It’s two outs, our leadoff hitter at second base, you have to try to score,” said Acta, a former third-base coach. “The second one, we were down by a few runs there. But I’ve been there before. When your team’s struggling so bad to score runs, sometimes you try to push the action a little bit too much.”

It wasn’t until Willie Harris’ double down the right-field line in the seventh inning that the Nationals ended Hudson’s scoreless streak of 201/3 innings against them.

They won’t have an easier time trying to resuscitate their offense tonight, when they face a sizzling John Smoltz (3-0, 0.56 ERA), or tomorrow, when they come home to Johan Santana and the Mets. Then there’s a weekend series with the NL Central-leading Chicago Cubs, followed by another two games with the Braves next Tuesday and Wednesday.

“That’s fine. It’s competition,” Kearns said. “It’s why you play.”

SEEN AND HEARD AT TURNER FIELD

As the Washington Nationals’ losses continue to pile up, manager Manny Acta continues to stay positive about the team’s ability to get out of its slide. Though the Nationals have the National League’s worst record for the second consecutive April, he said good things will happen if he continues to work.

“My spirit is great because I’m doing my best every day,” Acta said. “I’m preparing myself, and I’m backing up my guys. There are a lot of things we can’t control, but my spirit is good. I can handle it. I hope I don’t reflect any bad vibe on my players, which is what I always try not to do.”

Ben Goessling

BY THE NUMBERS

4 Times the Nationals have managed seven or more hits off Braves starter Tim Hudson; last night was their 11th time facing him.

TODAY’S GAME

Nationals LHP John Lannan Record, ERA: 0-2, 4.86

Braves RHP John Smoltz Record, ERA: 3-0, 0.56

Time: 7:10 p.m. TV: MASN HD


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