- The Washington Times - Monday, June 22, 2009

By the time Ryan Zimmerman stepped to the plate in the first inning Sunday, the Washington Nationals already trailed the Toronto Blue Jays by four runs. The afternoon’s tone had been set by right-hander Shairon Martis, who got off to a horrible start and was mostly responsible for his team’s 9-4 loss.

Zimmerman, though, had a golden opportunity to get the needle moving in the other direction and perhaps give the Nationals a fighting chance at getting back in this ballgame.

With two men on and no outs, Washington’s No. 3 hitter needed at worst to advance the runners and at best to drive them in. Instead, he flailed away at a 2-2 slider in the dirt from Toronto lefty Ricky Romero, an unsightly strikeout that was all too emblematic of this game and of Zimmerman’s struggles in the past month.

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Once the most productive player on the roster and a fast-growing sensation around the sport thanks to his 30-game hitting streak, Zimmerman has fallen into a prolonged slump that has had a significant effect on his ballclub.

By the time Sunday’s game was over, Washington’s four-game winning streak had ended but Zimmerman’s 0-fer streak remained intact. He’s now hitless in his past 17 at-bats, having struck out eight times during that span while failing to drive in any of the 19 runners who were on base when he stepped to the plate.

“Three bad games, out of how many? I think that’s what’s going on,” he said. “It happens to everybody.”

It behooves Zimmerman to view this slump as only three days long. Just as he did during his month-plus at the top earlier this year, he focuses on the narrow prism of one game at a time.

Truth be told, his woes at the plate extend much further back. Indeed, in his past 29 games, he has batted .198 with two homers, 12 RBI and only four doubles. His batting average during that time has fallen from .358 to .293.

“He’s a little bit lost right now,” manager Manny Acta said. “He’s chasing, going out of the zone a little bit and taking some breaking balls that he was handling when he was hot. Obviously, it’s a totally different scenario [now].”

Coincidence or not, Zimmerman’s struggles at the plate have mirrored the Nationals’ woes. During that same 29-game stretch, the club is batting .230 and averaging only 3.2 runs a contest.

It was easy to overlook Washington’s offensive woes during the recent winning streak, but the problem has been there all along. The difference between Sunday’s loss and the previous four games was a lack of brilliant pitching.

On Sunday, Martis was pelted for four runs in the first, and though he ultimately battled his way through five innings, he couldn’t make up for the shoddy start. All eight Blue Jays players who came to the plate in the first either hit the ball extremely hard or drew walks. The outs came on a scorched line drive right at Zimmerman (which turned into a double play) and a well-struck fly out to left field by Rod Barajas.

“I was just leaving the ball right in the middle, belt-high where they like it,” Martis said. “It was frustrating because I came in today to continue the winning streak, and I didn’t do it.”

Martis won five of his first seven starts but now has pitched seven more times without another victory. He has had a few ragged starts in that span, but he also held the New York Yankees to one earned run in six innings last week, so his production hasn’t dropped off all that much.

Rather, he has finally become victim to Washington’s slumping offense, which hasn’t been able to provide him enough run support to produce another win or two. The Nationals rapped out 12 hits Sunday, but only three of them drove in runs.

“Hits don’t win ballgames. Hits with runners in scoring position win ballgames, and we haven’t been able to do that lately,” Acta said. “We can’t expect our pitching to be as good as it’s been the last couple weeks.”

Sooner or later the Nationals are going to need their once-potent lineup - particularly their No. 3 hitter - to get back on track.

“We’ve had a lot of opportunities, and we haven’t capitalized on nearly enough of them,” Zimmerman said. “And we’re still winning without doing that, so I think it’s kind of a positive outlook. Once we start getting hits - which we will - I think this team will really take off.”

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