- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Washington Nationals have lost 66 of 92 games this season - or 40 more than they’ve won - after Monday’s 6-2 loss to the New York Mets.

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

That crushing load of losses doesn’t come without the predictable defeats, nights when the matchups and probabilities are so stacked against the Nationals that the outcome seems preordained.

With a hobbled Mets team in town fighting desperately to matter in the season’s final months and conducting midgame news 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 have 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.

It 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, a first-round pick by Cleveland who turned into an eight-year farmhand before finally making his big league debut 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, 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.

“I think we chased a lot of his pitches,” outfielder Adam Dunn said. “We’ve faced him three times. He’s pitched well against us all three times. If we chase his pitches, it’s going to be a long night.”

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 has allowed John Lannan and Craig Stammen to get by without a sizzling fastball. Too many of his pitches were up in the strike zone, and the Mets jumped on him immediately.

“My cutter was spinning a little bit,” said Martin, who had about 30 friends and family members in attendance. “But besides that, besides my balls being up a little bit, I felt OK.”

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 faced.

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.

It probably won’t be the final start Martin makes in the majors this year, considering the postgame news that Scott Olsen will have season-ending surgery to repair a small tear of his left labrum Thursday. But the gulf between Martin and Hernandez was the primary reason his first start wound up like a paint-by-numbers Nationals loss.

“I hope he stays here,” said reliever Tyler Clippard, who pitched with Martin at Class AAA Syracuse. “I have all the confidence in the world in what he can do.”

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