The proclamation came six months ago in Viera, Fla., when the Washington Nationals had every reason to feel good about themselves and their chances for making major progress in 2008.
“I think that we’re ready to win more games than we lose,” Jim Bowden said on that day pitchers and catchers reported for spring training.
It was a bold statement by the Nationals general manager but one that certainly seemed within reason given the team he had assembled.
Sunday afternoon, a crowd of 31,467 watched as that Washington ballclub officially fell short of its goal. A 7-2 loss to the Colorado Rockies wasn’t only the Nationals’ 10th in a row, it was their 81st of 2008, ensuring a fourth-straight nonwinning season since the franchise arrived in town.
This one figures to end in far less-inspiring fashion than the previous three. To avoid 100 losses, Washington would need to go 19-18 the rest of the way.
“You never want to be a part of something like that,” infielder Aaron Boone said. “But you can’t play .500 the rest of the season unless you take care of Tuesday night. That’s the way you’ve got to focus. That’s as far as we should get ahead of ourselves.”
Before even contemplating Tuesday’s opener of a three-game series at Philadelphia, manager Manny Acta wants his players to forget about every painful moment from the last 10 days. In a brief but forceful meeting following Sunday’s loss, Acta had simple instructions for the players on their first day off in three weeks.
“Forget about baseball,” Acta said. “Get together with your family. Tell them that you love them. Do a barbecue. Whatever. And then be ready to play on Tuesday.”
In a sport in which losing wears on players’ minds, that cannot be done as easily as it is said.
“It’s always going to be there with you, but you’ve got to do your best to just get away for a day,” reliever Joel Hanrahan said. “Enjoy time with your family. Don’t turn on the Sunday night game. Just relax a little bit.”
There was nothing relaxing about the Nationals’ latest loss, a close affair until the Rockies erupted for four runs in the eighth. Washington (44-81) had countless opportunities to seize control yet kept finding ways to squander them.
There was Lastings Milledge’s RBI double in the fifth, a shot to deep left-center that scored Emilio Bonifacio and could have scored Willie Harris as well had the ball not bounced just over the fence and limited everyone to two bases. Boone then struck out, and Ryan Langerhans later flied out, stranding two runners in scoring position.
“When you’re going bad, things like that happen,” Acta said. “In a streak like this, you expect a ball like that to go over the wall because everything is just going wrong.”
One inning later, with the Nationals still trailing 3-2, Pete Orr and Wil Nieves each singled to ignite a potential rally and present Acta with an opportunity to send his best hitter to the plate. Ryan Zimmerman had been given a rare day off, but this situation called for his presence, so the third baseman came off the bench.
“You just got to try to do it today because tomorrow it might rain,” Acta said. “That’s the way I see it. You’ve got to take your shot when you can.”
Rockies reliever Manny Corpas, though, was ready for the challenge. He got Zimmerman to fly out on two pitches and then got Bonifacio to ground into a double play on one pitch. Just like that, inning over.
About an hour later, it was game over. The Nationals trudged off the field, knowing all too well they had just lost 10 straight games by a combined score of 72-22. It’s the franchise’s longest losing streak since the Expos dropped 11 in a row in 1991, the longest by a Washington-based team since the Senators went 0-14 during a late stretch in 1970.
And there’s nothing this team can do about it but go home, forget about it and attempt to come back Tuesday with renewed focus.
“All they can do is give me the effort,” Acta said. “This is what we have, and this is what we’re going to finish the season with. … Now you can see who can grind it out, who’s going to be a guy that you can stick with and who’s going to be a guy who is going to be here for the future.”