- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 12, 2009

— The Washington Nationals signed Daniel Cabrera to a $2.6 million contract in December believing they could fix a 27-year-old right-hander who had hit rock bottom in Baltimore.

Five weeks and seven starts into this grand experiment, it’s becoming obvious Cabrera is unfixable. The tall man with the golden right arm simply seems incapable of getting major league hitters out on a consistent basis.

At best, he throws the ball over the plate and gets hit hard. At worst, he doesn’t even give the opposition a chance to swing.

Both sides of Cabrera were on display Monday night at AT&T Park, and the results were not pretty. Over the course of 4 2/3 excruciating innings, the weakest link of the Nationals’ rotation put 16 men on base, allowing eight of them to score.

The end result was an 11-7 loss to the San Francisco Giants, a refusal by Cabrera to take responsibility for his performance and renewed skepticism about the pitcher’s future with the Washington organization.

Two other developments from Monday’s game - Ryan Zimmerman extending his hit streak to 29 games and then homering twice for good measure and Randy Johnson winning his 298th career game - surely are more important in the larger context. Each event will garner national headlines and be remembered long after images of Cabrera’s outing fade into oblivion.

But from the Nationals’ perspective, Cabrera’s continued struggles are a growing cause for concern. The right-hander is now 0-4 with a 4.98 ERA that is misleadingly low because of a league-high 13 unearned runs scored while he has been on the mound. As a team, Washington has gone 0-7 in games Cabrera has started. The club’s record every other night: 10-13.

Before the game, Manny Acta insisted Cabrera wasn’t on a short leash, that he wasn’t pitching to try to keep his job. And the manager made it clear after the game there will be no changes to his rotation, not right now at least.

Asked what signs he has seen to believe Cabrera can turn it around, Acta replied: “Well, it’s only been a month and 10 days now. So yes, I say he can turn it around because we’ve seen him pitch better than this before in Baltimore.”

Cabrera was nowhere close to top form Monday night. San Francisco scored three runs and rapped out six hits between the second and third innings, taking a 3-1 lead and negating Josh Willingham’s third homer in two days.

Cabrera’s true meltdown, though, came during a wretched fifth inning that would be a strong contender in any ranking of the worst frame played in the big leagues this season.

It resulted in five San Francisco runs yet featured only one base hit: Pablo Sandoval’s leadoff double. How did the Giants score five runs after that without benefit of a hit? Credit Cabrera’s absolute inability to find the strike zone and Willingham’s inability to catch a routine fly ball.

The inning wouldn’t have amounted to anything had Willingham simply caught Fred Lewis drive to medium-deep left field. But Willingham missed the ball altogether, allowing two runs to score.

“I missed it,” he said. “The wind’s blowing out there, and I ran in. It just kind of took off on me, right over my glove. … What made it worse was it prolonged the inning and it just kind of snowballed from there.”

That’s an apt description of the rest of the inning. Cabrera intentionally walked Travis Ishikawa (a .188 hitter who was already 2-for-2 on the night) to bring Johnson to the plate. The Big Unit is a career .125 hitter who had drawn 18 walks in 22 major league seasons. So what did Cabrera do? He issued a four-pitch walk to load the bases.

Thus the merry-go-round fired up. Cabrera walked D.C. native Emmanuel Burriss to force in a run. Then he walked Edgar Renteria to force in another run. That was all Acta could take. The manager yanked his starter right then and there.

“You have to be able to put errors behind and shake it off and pick up your teammates,” Acta said. “And he just crumbled after that.”

Willingham stood up and took responsibility for his mistake. Cabrera did not. He walked out of the Nationals’ clubhouse minutes after the game ended, and when a group of reporters asked whether he wanted to talk, he fired back: “I don’t want to [expletive] talk to nobody” before storming off.

The reliever Acta entrusted to stop the bleeding after Cabrera’s implosion was Logan Kensing, who has been even less effective this season. And when Kensing proceeded to throw four balls to Sandoval, Washington’s pitching staff had issued its fifth straight walk, the last three with the bases loaded.

Everything that occurred after that - Zimmerman’s two homers and 4-for-5 night, two more runs surrendered by Kensing (whose ERA in 12 overall games this year now stands at 13.14) - was an afterthought.

For that, the Nationals could blame their reclamation project of a starting pitcher who right now looks unfixable and on Monday night compounded one mistake made behind him with a string of gaffes.

“I think I heard a man say one time that if you don’t want errors to be made behind you, you’re going to have to strike 27 guys out, which is pretty tough to do,” Acta said. “He’s just going to have to live with it and get better at it.”

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