- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 12, 2009

ATLANTA | There are no such things as must-win games in baseball. Even if there were, they certainly wouldn't take place in mid-April.

So it would be unfair to declare Sunday's series finale against the Atlanta Braves a must-win game for a Washington Nationals club that has yet to taste victory in 2009.

Then again, the Nationals are creeping ever closer to a doomsday scenario. Another loss Sunday and this franchise heads back to the District for its home opener with an 0-6 record, a frightening thought for a team that desperately wants to erase the bitter memories of a 102-loss season and establish a winning tradition in 2009.

Forgive Adam Dunn, then, if in the wake of Washington's latest setback - a 5-3 loss to the Braves on Saturday night - he senses a new urgency to fix the club before it's too late.

“We need to come out tomorrow and put all these last five games behind us and get a win,” Dunn said. “I think tomorrow is a game we need to win.”

No one else in the Nationals' clubhouse was willing to place quite as much importance on the next day's game, but tensions are beginning to mount among a group of players that doesn't want to see its season slip away before it reaches its second week.

“Would we rather be 5-0? Yeah,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “But we're 0-5, and hopefully we'll be 1-5.”

At the end of a somewhat testy loss at Turner Field, manager Manny Acta had a few quick words for his players. It wasn't a full-fledged team meeting, but it was a bit of a pep talk for a Nationals squad that might have needed it.

“I told them, 'Hey, keep your head up and let's show up tomorrow ready to play again,' ” Acta said. “There's no reason yet to show them that there's panic or anything. … I guarantee you we're not going to go 0-for-April.”

As was the case in Friday's 10-inning, rain-delayed loss to the Braves, the Nationals had plenty of opportunities to emerge victorious Saturday. They seemed to have Atlanta starter Kenshin Kawakami on the ropes early but couldn't deliver the big blow. They also seemed to be getting a quality start from John Lannan, only to watch as their young ace wilted during one bad inning.

And when they had a chance to rally late, putting two on with one out in the eighth, they watched helplessly as Nick Johnson grounded into a backbreaking double play that all but sealed their fate once again.

“Good pitch to hit,” Johnson said. “I just came off it. [I'm] leaving too many runners out there.”

All this on a night when tempers were heightened because of a string of calls that didn't go the Nationals' way.

The first sign of frustration came in the fourth from Lastings Milledge, who was already sporting a .125 average when he was rung up by first-base umpire Eric Cooper on a check swing. The Washington center fielder slammed his bat and helmet to the ground and directed some unprintable words toward plate umpire Chuck Meriwether, who shot back at him.

Out from the dugout came Acta for the first of several trips to state his case and also protect his players from getting tossed. He would be back out there again soon.

Things were going swimmingly for Lannan for three innings, aside from a solo homer by Kelly Johnson, but they quickly turned sour in the fourth when the young pitcher started getting testy.

It began with a bang-bang play at first, with Lannan upset at himself for not beating Matt Diaz to the bag. Lannan said a few things - not to Cooper but to himself, though the umpire apparently thought the words were directed at him.

“I was just disappointed I didn't get over there in time,” Lannan said. “That's it.”

Whatever the case, the pitcher perhaps lost composure for a few moments after that and proceeded to allow a double by No. 8 hitter Jordan Schafer, a two-run double by Johnson and an RBI single by Chipper Jones that put Atlanta up 4-3.

The Nationals had taken an early bite into Kawakami in the Japanese right-hander's big league debut, getting an RBI single from Johnson in the first and a two-run homer to right from Zimmerman in the third to open up a 3-0 lead.

But Kawakami got stronger as the night wore on and departed having retired eight straight batters. And the Nationals, unable to mount a late rally, were left to stew over another loss and hope they will enjoy a different fate Sunday.

“You don't want to lose,” Johnson said. “It's not too happy, but tomorrow's a new day. You can't carry it over.”

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