- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 2, 2009

— There was a time when the Washington Nationals would have looked at the way they’re losing games now and swooned.

Imagine no cringe-worthy starts from pitchers, no mental lockdowns in the field, no late-inning leads doused in kerosene by the bullpen, just polite, hard-fought, low-scoring losses stemming from eminently correctable causes.

The way the Nationals are losing right now a banged-up offense that has gone cold is much more palatable than earlier in the season. But they’re still losing. And on Tuesday night, they had another chance to stop a losing streak against one of the worst teams in baseball and slipped.

In a 4-1 loss to the San Diego Padres, the Nationals wasted a strong outing from J.D. Martin, failed to threaten Padres starter Clayton Richard consistently and had a number of would-be hits gobbled up by a game Padres defense. Oh, and they lost for the fifth night in a row.

However the losses are arriving, they’re doing so with consistency. The Nationals dropped to 46-87 and have slipped to 20-26 under interim manager Jim Riggleman. And they’ve scored three runs in their last three games.

“It’s just one of those times where it seems like everything we hit gets caught,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “It’s tough, but you’ve just got to keep battling through it, go out and keep playing.”

Martin, like Livan Hernandez the night before, was sharp against the Padres, albeit facing a shaky lineup and only lasting six innings instead of the eight Hernandez pitched. But with a sharp curveball doing most of the heavy lifting, Martin put in a night that registers among the top three of his short major league career.

“My curveball was a little bit better than it has been,” Martin said. “It’s not quite where I want it, but it was a little bit better tonight.”

He struck out a career-high five in six innings, keeping the Padres quiet in much the same manner as Hernandez. Whereas Monday’s game, though, was strewn with chances the Nationals never grabbed to take the lead, Tuesday’s loss was much more scripted.

With most of a depleted lineup swinging early against Richard, Washington put seven runners on base all night. Five were stranded, one was picked off and one scored. The only moment for what might have been was the seventh inning, when Josh Bard’s solo homer off the upper-deck facing in left field only magnified what had happened a moment before.

Elijah Dukes had drawn a one-out walk but then got picked off first and tagged out in a rundown, costing the Nationals a baserunner and the eventual tying run when Bard homered on the next pitch.

“You never know how somebody pitches in a different situation. You don’t know that you’re going to get that home run if we weren’t picked off,” Riggleman said. “But you can’t get picked off either way. The issue is getting picked off. It’s not the fact that we hit a home run afterward.”

The chance to tie the game blunted by Dukes’ pickoff, the Nationals never got another opportunity. Martin spun a cut fastball to pinch-hitter Oscar Salazar in the seventh, and the Padres got an insurance pinch-hit homer for the second consecutive night.

They scored again in the eighth, and Washington went down, quickly and politely, in the ninth against Heath Bell.

Wednesday is another opportunity to end the streak with No. 1 starter John Lannan on the mound against Sean West. But after that is a stretch of division games that could speed the march toward 100 losses, especially with center fielder Nyjer Morgan out for the year and shortstop Cristian Guzman still nursing bunions on his feet.

It’s a different story than the one that began this long season. The destination, though, is the same.

“I just know that we’re either hitting or we’re not hitting, and right now we’re not hitting,” Riggleman said. “You’ve just got to find another way.”

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