- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 24, 2009

In the first quarter of the Washington Nationals’ 2009 season, when just about everything else showed a defect, it was an awakened offense that kept the Nationals from careening from mediocrity into complete dilapidation.

Bolstered by the offseason acquisition of Adam Dunn, the production of a healthy Nick Johnson in the No. 2 hole and the growth of Ryan Zimmerman, the group turned almost immediately into one of the National League’s best offenses. It stormed its way back into games the Nationals appeared to have lost with their bullpen, defense or a wayward starting pitcher.

Now, however, when Washington is getting good enough starting pitching from its cast of neophytes, playing somewhat respectable defense and even getting a little help from its comically bad bullpen, it’s losing because it can’t score runs.

Saturday night’s 2-1 loss to the Baltimore Orioles, the Nationals’ ninth in 10 games, played out almost exactly opposite to most of their other defeats this season. Center fielder Justin Maxwell made a jaw-dropping catch to take away a homer in the first inning. Ross Detwiler fought control problems for a quality start, and the Nationals were respectable in the field and in relief.

Instead, it was the offense that couldn’t deliver. Despite facing the Orioles’ bullpen for six innings after starter Koji Uehara left with tightness in his left hamstring, Washington scored one run on seven hits a night after it managed two runs on four hits.

A Cristian Guzman homer was the Nationals’ only extra-base hit. Right fielder Austin Kearns left five runners on base. And with Washington down by a run in the ninth, three straight hitters struck out against Baltimore closer George Sherrill.

For a team that still wins games only when everything clicks, the offensive drought was too much to handle.

“Can’t complain now,” manager Manny Acta said. “We scored enough runs before, and now we’re pitching better, and the runs are not there. Not complaining. The guys are playing hard and playing good baseball.”

Making his second major league start, Detwiler was perfect for the first two innings, if only because of Maxwell’s sensational catch in the first inning.

Maxwell retreated to the center field wall on Adam Jones’ long fly ball, and just as it appeared he’d run out of room, the University of Maryland product leapt and snatched the ball back from over the fence.

“He made a similar catch [at Class A Potomac] in ‘07 with [Shairon] Martis out there,” Detwiler said. “With Maxwell out there, you know there’s a chance.”

Still, Detwiler had trouble locating his fastball and appeared headed for an early exit after walking the bases loaded in the third inning. Markakis hit a grounder to short that Zimmerman fielded. Willie Harris was playing Markakis to pull the ball and was nowhere near second, so Zimmerman had no play there, and his throw to first was late.

“I knew he wasn’t going to be at second the whole time,” Zimmerman said. “We’re playing Markakis to pull, and it’s a swinging, I guess, bunt to the perfect spot.”

As much as the ability to control his fastball deserted him in the first few innings, it was that pitch that sustained Detwiler through the sixth inning. He started throwing it for a strike on the outer half of the plate with some regularity against right-handers, retiring 10 of the last 11 batters he faced and giving up just one hit.

“Especially in the third inning, after he lost his release point, he was able to work himself out of it,” Acta said. “It was a very encouraging outing by the kid - second in a row.”

He left with a no-decision after Guzman swatted a Brian Bass fastball into the Nationals’ bullpen in the fifth inning,

But Julian Tavarez gave up a double with one out in the seventh, which appeared harmless when Gregg Zaun tried to advance to third on a grounder by Cesar Izturis right in front of him. Guzman fielded the ball and threw to Zimmerman, who tagged out Zaun easily.

But when pinch hitter Aubrey Huff popped a double off the top of the bullpen wall in left center, missing a two-run homer by mere inches, Izturis scored from first to give the Orioles a 2-1 lead.

Against the Nationals’ suddenly impotent offense, that was all Baltimore would need.

“There’s no one reason in the past four or five games why we’ve lost,” Zimmerman said. “It gets to a point where, we’ve just got to keep playing, and hopefully it will pass.”

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