- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 31, 2009

PHILADELPHIA | The perpetually finicky Philadelphia sports fans - who can find reason to boo just about any situation no matter how positive - have been in panic mode lately over their World Series champion Phillies.

As the locals would describe it: The pitching staff stinks, Jimmy Rollins is struggling, Brett Myers may be out for the season and the Fightins aren’t much above .500.

What those fans apparently don’t realize is that none of that matters when the Washington Nationals are in town and Ryan Howard has a bat in his hands. That lethal combination has given the Phillies and their fans plenty of reason to celebrate this season and has given Nationals manager Manny Acta nothing but nightmares.

Remove Howard from the equation Saturday night, and the Nationals would have cruised to victory at Citizens Bank Park. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case, so the big man’s two homers and five RBI counted toward Philadelphia’s 9-6 victory and ensured another aggravating loss for Washington.

Take your pick of humiliating stats that apply to the Nationals. They’ve lost 17 of their past 20. They’ve dropped six straight to the Phillies. They lead the majors with 48 errors. Their season record stands at 13-35, which means they would need to play .500 ball the rest of the way just to get to 70 wins. They would need to go at least 50-64 to avoid 100 losses.

“To play the way we’re playing and to have the record that we have… it’s very frustrating,” outfielder Adam Dunn said. “I can’t put it into words. Frustrating. Disappointing. I don’t know if there’s a word the English language has for it yet.”

Not even a fortuitous alignment of the stars Saturday night - a vulnerable Cole Hamels pitching for Philadelphia, an undefeated Shairon Martis starting for Washington - could turn out positive. Despite tagging Hamels for six runs, the Nationals were done in by Howard and Co., who handed Martis his first loss of the year.

“I came in today to stop the losing, and I didn’t do it,” the rookie pitcher said. “I feel very bad right now.”

Martis, who came in with a 5-0 record despite a 4.86 ERA, again got run support, but he forced his team to try to mount a big comeback because he couldn’t keep Howard inside the ballpark.

The big Philadelphia slugger had already touched up Martis for a grand slam in their last encounter - April 27 in this same ballpark - but apparently the right-hander didn’t learn his lesson last time because he left a 2-1 change-up over the plate in the second inning Friday. Howard tagged that one into the second deck in right field, a prodigious blast that was harmless only because the Phillies had no one on base.

The same couldn’t be said when Howard strode to the plate again one inning later. A Philadelphia player occupied each base, so Martis had no margin for error. Yet he hung a curveball up in the zone, and Howard absolutely crushed it into the third deck, some 475 feet from the plate.

So, to recap: In his last three at-bats against Martis, Howard has hit three home runs (two of them grand slams) and produced nine RBI. In his past 15 games against the Nationals, he has nine homers and 25 RBI.

“We’re trying to throw him breaking balls, make him chase, but everything is staying up,” catcher Wil Nieves said. “When we do [make good pitches], we make him look real bad. But he’s just a good hitter. He’s going to hit your mistakes. And right now we’re just making a lot of them.”

Martis’ night ended after only four innings, his ERA now a hefty 5.62, but Howard wasn’t done yet. Amazingly, he came up again with the bases loaded in the sixth inning, this time with veteran Ron Villone on the mound.

Villone did his job; he got Howard to hit a grounder right at second baseman Anderson Hernandez, who needed only to glove the routine grounder and throw to first. That, however, proved too difficult a task, and the ball squirted away from him as two runners came around to score.

Hernandez’s ghastly error - one of three committed by Washington in the game - allowed the Phillies to open a 9-6 lead and served as a fitting cap to another ugly night at the park for the Nationals.

“We know we’re losing a lot,” Acta said. “It’s tough. It’s not easy on any of us. But what are we gonna do? There’s no options. We’re not going to quit. We’ve got to keep our head up, and we’ve got to go out there and play hard tomorrow and snap out of it.”

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