- The Washington Times - Monday, September 21, 2009

NEW YORK | The Washington Nationals have taken two nine-game road trips in the last month, a pair of twin gauntlets at the end of a six-month season. And they’ve followed the same script.

In the first act, the Nationals create some optimism by taking two out of three. That disappears in the middle act, when teams burnish their playoff resumes by shutting down the Nationals for three days.

In the final, most grisly act, the Nationals lie prostrate while playing another team with as little on the line as they have.

It happened at the beginning of the month when they were swept by the last place San Diego Padres, and save for a win two nights ago against the New York Mets, it happened again this weekend.

The Nationals fell 6-2 to the Mets on Sunday, finishing their road trip at 3-6 and looking like a team stripped of its fight.

Their energy level was a point of contention after Sunday’s loss; interim manager Jim Riggleman said he wasn’t happy with it, while third baseman Ryan Zimmerman downplayed the notion the Nationals were flat and first baseman Adam Dunn scoffed at it. But whatever room for debate there was over the hows and the whys, the basic facts of the game were simple: Washington looked beaten almost from the beginning.

“It just was a lackluster performance,” Riggleman said, paraphrasing what he told his team after the loss. “We got down a run, and it was almost as if, ‘Well, let’s see what we can do here, get through it.’ The thing is, the other guy’s throwing a pretty good ballgame. Good pitching will make you look flat, and he pitched pretty good. But we can’t allow that to happen. We’ve got a lot of guys on this ballclub playing to make an impression for the future.”

Garrett Mock gave up four runs in the first three innings, while John Maine squeezed every drop of effectiveness he could out of his outing, which was shortened to 75 pitches with the right-hander still rebuilding from a three-month stint on the disabled list with shoulder weakness. He threw five shutout innings, becoming the third pitcher in four games to take a no-hitter into the fourth inning against the Nationals. By the time Mock turned things around, the Nationals’ listless offense had too big a challenge to overcome.

“If that is a meaningful game in the future, he might have to be pinch-hit for,” Riggleman said. “You put your club down four runs in three innings, you don’t get the opportunity sometimes to show how good you are.”

Mock languished through a three-inning beginning full of flat breaking balls and two-out hits as the bullpen roused to get loose sooner than the Nationals would have liked. But Riggleman kept trotting Mock back out to the mound. And as the game reached the middle innings, when Mock usually falters, he got stronger.

Just two of the nine hits he gave up came after the fourth inning, and Mock walked one batter after the fourth. He threw 74 of his 115 pitches for strikes, the second-highest percentage he has had all season, and that enabled him to push through the seventh inning for the first time in his career.

“I think [Riggleman] sees the exact same thing that I see, that guys aren’t tattooing the ball all over the yard from start to finish,” Mock said. “I don’t come in and start bashing helmets. As bad as I want to, I’m not going to do that. I want to stay in the game, and I appreciate him letting me do that.”

But the Nationals were so ineffective offensively, it didn’t matter that Maine came out of the game. Given an opportunity to close the game against a Mets bullpen that was stretched further than expected, the Nationals didn’t show a pulse at the plate until the ninth inning, when they scored a couple of runs against Brian Stokes.

They left Citi Field for LaGuardia Airport, bound for home and an off-day before a three-game series with the NL West-leading Dodgers. Suffice it to say there can’t be the same kind of discussion about effort level if the Nationals want to avoid a similar result there.

“We’ve played one-hundred-and-x amount of games. Why would we decide on Sunday, whatever the day is, to not play hard?” Dunn said. “That’s [crap]. I don’t care how we’re winning or losing. We do play hard. I think the energy was the same as any other game. We didn’t seem to play as well as we can.”

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