- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Washington Nationals have now lost 66 of their 92 games this season, or 40 more than they’ve won, after a 6-2 loss Monday.

To avoid losing 100 games for the second straight year, they’d have to play four games over .500 the rest of the season.

That kind of a crushing load of losses doesn’t come without the predictable defeats, nights where the matchups and probabilities are so stacked against the Nationals, it seems the outcome is preordained before the first pitch.

With a hobbled New York Mets team in town fighting desperately to matter in the season’s final months and conducting midgame press conferences to assure reporters it won’t overhaul the front office, Monday night wouldn’t have seemed like one of those games.

But that’s what makes this Nationals team so stunningly efficient at producing defeats; presented with even a slight advantage, they nonetheless manage to rubber-stamp another “L” on the ledger.

It didn’t matter that the Mets were without Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado, as they’ve been much of the year. Washington’s offense had plenty of impotence of its own, and with a rookie pitcher on the mound against a former teammate-turned-unsolvable quandary, the Nationals’ 66th loss was rather simple.

The four-run loss in front of just 19,169 at Nationals Park was the Nationals’ sixth loss in a row, fifth in five games under interim manager Jim Riggleman and the first of right-hander J.D. Martin’s career.

Fielding a lineup without Ryan Zimmerman and Josh Willingham, the Nationals were tacitly putting more faith than usual in their starting pitcher to manage a game through six or so innings. That the pitcher was Martin, the Cleveland Indians’ first-round pick in 2001 who turned into an eight-year farmhand before finally making his big league debut on Monday, probably should have given even the most optimistic prognosticators pause. That the opposing pitcher was Livan Hernandez should have made a loss seem automatic.

Before Monday night, the 34-year-old had faced the Nationals four times in 2008 and 2009 — with three different teams — and held them to eight runs in 29 innings.

He was similarly brilliant Monday night, pulling strings against an overeager lineup, conserving his pitch count and generally providing a textbook example for how an older pitcher can extend his career.

Hernandez’s fastball topped out around 84 mph, but he located it well and complemented it with a 77 mph change-up and 70-mph curveball, pitches with just enough speed difference to get the Nationals swinging early.

He now has 11 wins against the Nationals/Expos, more than he has against all but two teams in the majors, and hasn’t lost against them since 2006.

And everything Hernandez did to compensate for a lack of overpowering stuff, Martin failed to do.

His fastball, topping out in the high 80s, never had the sink that’s allowed John Lannan and Craig Stammen to get by without a sizzling fastball in the majors. Too many of his pitches were up in the strike zone, and the Mets jumped on him immediately.

They had two runs on three hits by the end of the first and five runs on seven hits by the end of the second. Martin allowed a leadoff single in the third before retiring the last five batters he’d face.

But by that point, the Mets already had a 5-0 lead. Martin’s night ended after just 74 pitches, eight of them going for hits in four innings.

Washington’s one attempt to make the game competitive — a fourth-inning rally — alternated two singles with a pair of outs, meaning the Nationals didn’t have room to extend the inning after Josh Bard’s two-run double that rolled into foul territory, spiked off an angled fence and shot straight sideways back into fair territory.

That rally devolved into a predictably sleepy offense in the late innings; the Nationals’ only hit after the fourth inning was a Nick Johnson single in the seventh.

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