- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 23, 2008

— Their No. 3 hitter and third baseman was back in the lineup, their closer was on a plane to Phoenix to join his new team and their shortstop was all smiles after signing a two-year extension.

But after a day of change that saw Ryan Zimmerman come off the disabled list, Jon Rauch get traded and Cristian Guzman earn $16 million, the Washington Nationals spent the evening looking very much like the club that had lost 61 of its previous 99 games this season.

A 6-3 loss to the San Francisco Giants featured many of the themes so common to this disappointing season. The Nationals couldn’t come up with timely hits, threw a couple of ill-advised pitches and wound up suffering another loss in the process.

Making this one sting even more, Washington was beaten again by one of the majors’ least-effective pitchers: Barry Zito, who may be 5-12 with a 5.56 ERA but is now 2-0 against the Nationals in 2008.

Zito drew cheers from the AT&T Park crowd of 34,813 for one of the few times during his tenure with the Giants, one marked by losses and lots of money wasted. If only he started every game against Washington, which was coming off a season-high, 15-run showing in Atlanta on Sunday but was brought back to reality on a chilly night along the San Francisco Bay.

“We just couldn’t get the big hits today,” said manager Manny Acta, whose club is 0-5 against the Giants this year.

Optimism was high earlier in the day with the news that Guzman had signed a contract extension that will pay the shortstop $8 million apiece in 2009 and 2010, plus the knowledge Zimmerman was back after missing two months with a small tear in his left shoulder.

It didn’t have a tangible effect on Tuesday’s game, but Zimmerman’s return was a welcome relief to a Nationals club that sorely missed its No. 3 hitter and starting third baseman. Washington went 16-32 in his absence, and few with the club believe there was no correlation.

“Every time he comes up, he’s a legit threat for us,” Acta said. “And you know he plays outstanding defense at third base. So it’s a different team when he’s out there.”

After spending two months rehabbing his injured shoulder and watching from the dugout as his teammates struggled both at the plate and in the field, Zimmerman was itching to get back in the lineup and attempt to make a difference.

“I’m just excited,” he said. “It’s fun to compete again. It’s been so long. I watched all the games. I was with the team the whole time, but to actually be in the mix of a game and have that competitive edge is what people miss the most.”

There wasn’t much Zimmerman (who went 1-for-3 with two walks) could do to bail out starter Jason Bergmann in the early going Tuesday. The right-hander couldn’t keep the ball inside this spacious park. The Giants got to him for three homers in the first four innings alone, with Fred Lewis leading off the first with a solo shot to right and Bengie Molina adding a pair of blasts to left.

All told, Bergmann (1-7) suffered through his worst outing in more than a month, allowing five runs (four earned) over five innings, his shortest start since June 12. A flyball pitcher by nature, he has run into his biggest trouble this season when those flyballs have cleared the fence. Bergmann now has allowed a team-high 16 homers in 16 outings.

“It really was the difference in the game,” he said. “The runs were there for us. Molina had my number today. I tried each time he came up to throw something different. My approach wasn’t there.”

The Nationals tried to get Bergmann off the hook, scoring three times off Zito (including Willie Harris’ solo homer in the fifth, giving the diminutive outfielder seven homers for the year, the same number he hit in his first seven big league seasons combined). But they couldn’t extend those rallies and wound up stranding two men on base four different times over the course of the night.

“We had a couple chances, but he tightened up on us the last couple innings,” left fielder Paul Lo Duca said. “We had him in trouble in the fifth and let him off the hook a little bit.”

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