- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Washington Nationals opened the final month of another forgettable season Friday night with another forgettable loss. In falling 9-6 to the Florida Marlins, they dropped their seventh straight and dropped to a season-worst 43 games under .500.

And here’s a frightening thought: There’s a good chance things are going to spiral even further downhill from here.

Consider the massive challenges facing the Nationals in the season’s final 27 games:

c Twenty-one of these games are against teams still in contention: the Marlins, Philadelphia Phillies, Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves.

c Their lineup simply hasn’t been the same since Nyjer Morgan suffered a season-ending hand injury, and their bench is filled with mostly Class AAA players.

c And their pitching staff is running on fumes, having already lost Jordan Zimmermann, Scott Olsen, Collin Balester and now Craig Stammen while asking the likes of John Lannan, J.D. Martin and Garrett Mock to gut their way through the next four weeks without their arms falling off.

“We saw this coming. We know the schedule,” interim manager Jim Riggleman said. “It’s going to be a real challenge. It’s going to be tough. It’s the big leagues; it’s supposed to be tough. But we’ve got to find a way to scratch out wins.”

If Mock’s unsightly performance Friday night - six runs on seven hits in only three innings - is evidence of things still to come, this could be a painful September for Washington.

The right-hander dug himself a hole from the moment he toed the rubber, allowing three runs in the first, including two on a Jorge Cantu homer. By the time he got out of the second (with another run having scored) his pitch count was up to 53. And by the time John Baker slammed a two-run homer in the third to give the Marlins six runs, Mock’s fate was essentially sealed.

He finished the inning but didn’t return for the fourth, not exactly a show of faith from Riggleman.

Thus concluded the latest hard-to-decipher outing in a hard-to-decipher season for Mock. At times, he looks like a solid major league starter, capable of holding a potent club such as the St. Louis Cardinals to two runs in six innings. At others, he looks incapable of giving his team a chance to win.

“The top-line starters in baseball quite often don’t go out there six or seven times in a row with a really good start,” Riggleman said. “I think he’s really made progress in the last month, but he just didn’t have it tonight.”

In the next month, Mock will continue to get chances to state his case for a spot in next year’s rotation. With Zimmermann, Olsen, Balester and Stammen all done for the season, the Nationals need Mock to take the ball every fifth day the rest of the way. It’s up to the 26-year-old to prove he’s up to the challenge.

“I felt fine - arm, body, everything feels good,” Mock said. “I just did a really terrible job of executing my pitches.”

Despite Mock’s struggles, the Nationals nearly got him off the hook, rallying for five runs in the second and third innings to draw to within a run. A two-run triple by Alberto Gonzalez and a two-run homer by Josh Willingham brought some life out of the sparse crowd of 16,364 and knocked Florida starter Sean West out early, just like his counterpart.

But while the Marlins kept producing at the plate against Washington’s bullpen, scoring three runs off Saul Rivera, the opposite was not true. The Nationals’ bats went silent against Florida’s relief corps, squandering a pair of bases-loaded opportunities.

Washington had three men on with one out in the fifth but couldn’t push any of them home when Elijah Dukes swung at an 0-2 slider well out of the zone and Josh Bard grounded out to first. Two innings later, Bard came up again with the bases filled and two outs and this time was called out on a check swing.

“We just couldn’t get the timely hit,” Riggleman said. “The runners were out there. I’d rather have that than what we had in San Diego, where we weren’t even threatening much.”

Consider it just another steep mountain the Nationals must try to overcome as this season winds down.

“Every day is a challenge,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “It’s not easy winning games. It doesn’t really matter who you’re playing. Obviously, our division’s tough, but we’ve got to get back to doing the little things right. It’s one of those times where when you pitch, you don’t hit. And when you hit, you don’t pitch.

“We’ve just got to battle through it.”

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