- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 18, 2009

If the Washington Nationals are going to enjoy any semblance of a second-half turnaround under their new manager, they’re going to have to take advantage of every opportunity afforded them.

Like delivering a knockout blow to an opposing pitcher who is clearly dazed and primed to be taken down.

The Nationals, though, didn’t come close to making the most of those kind of opportunities under Manny Acta. And Friday, they couldn’t reverse the trend for interim manager Jim Riggleman.

The story of Washington’s 3-1 loss to the Cubs might well have been penned during a first inning in which Chicago starter Carlos Zambrano put himself in a world of trouble yet escaped having suffered only a glancing blow. The Nationals missed their shot, and they never got another one.

“When you have a guy that’s on the ropes, so to speak, delivering that final blow at times has been elusive for us,” hitting coach Rick Eckstein said. “We’ve put a lot of guys in that position. We just haven’t been able to deliver that blow.”

As a result, Washington fell to 0-2 since Acta was fired. The Nationals are 26-63 in a season that ran off the tracks long ago.

They have never had much success against Zambrano - he entered Friday 6-2 with a 3.02 ERA in 11 career games against the franchise - so they had to be licking their chops when they jumped on the big right-hander early. He allowed five of the first six batters he faced to reach safely and needed 40 pitches to get through the frame, the kind of first-inning rally that should allow a team to storm to a commanding lead.

But these are the Nationals, so it should come as no surprise that only one of those five men who reached scored. And that it required a bases-loaded walk by Willie Harris to push that lone run across.

The real inning-killer was a strike-‘em-out, throw-‘em-out double play, with Ryan Zimmerman whiffing at a 3-2 fastball and Nyjer Morgan getting gunned down at third base. No matter how it happened, though, the wasted opportunity loomed large for Washington.

“To have him in that much trouble, we’ve got to get him out of there in the third or fourth when he’s struggling like that,” Riggleman said. “And we didn’t.”

Zambrano lasted through the fifth, getting stronger each step along the way. The Nationals’ only other legitimate scoring opportunity against him came in the second, when they put two on with one out and the heart of the order up. But Nick Johnson grounded out and Zimmerman struck out again to end the inning and extend his woes at the plate. In his past 11 games, the All-Star third baseman is batting .184 with 10 strikeouts.

“We’re just trying to maintain that even keel and continue to work with him,” Eckstein said. “Obviously we know where we’d like him to be, but from that consistency standpoint, we just haven’t been to that level.”

Then again, just about all of the Nationals’ regulars are struggling to produce in key situations - situations that didn’t arise often enough in the final seven innings Friday.

Zambrano retired 11 of the last 13 men he faced before departing after the fifth with his pitch count at a whopping 113. His bullpen, though, picked up the slack, tossing four scoreless innings of two-hit ball to close this one out.

The hard-luck loser was Craig Stammen, who recorded his third straight quality start but was done in by two costly mistakes and a lack of run support.

The rookie’s second mistake - “a sinker that didn’t sink” to Aramis Ramirez in the third - could be excused. But his first gaffe - a hanging curveball to Zambrano in the second that turned into a two-run double - was less acceptable.

Zambrano, who already has three homers this season, has long been regarded as one of baseball’s best-hitting pitchers.

“I try to treat him just like a regular hitter and pitch them the same way instead of just grooving fastballs in there,” the right-hander said. “I left a curveball that didn’t break as much as I wanted to, and he put a good swing on it and got a hit.”

That proved the difference in a ballgame that hinged on early mistakes, the latest in a season full of missed opportunities.

“Players are playing hard. They’re not accepting it,” Riggleman said. “They’re frustrated with the record, and they’re anxious to turn it around. And we’re gonna turn it around.

“I can tell you that. We will turn it around.”

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