- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 21, 2011

ST. LOUIS | Jayson Werth dropped his bat, tore off his batting gloves and tossed his helmet aside as the St. Louis Cardinals made their way off the field following a 1-2-3 first inning on Thursday that ended when Werth looked at three straight strikes from Kyle Lohse.

It was a scene that repeated itself several times over the course of the next eight innings as Lohse navigated his way through the Nationals’ sputtering offense with surgeon-like precision and held Washington to just two hits in a series-clinching 5-0 complete game victory.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that [Lohse] had his stuff and we didn’t have ours,” said first baseman Adam LaRoche, one of just five base runners allowed by Lohse.

So it went for the Nationals, who continue to make Sunday’s 13-run doubleheader outburst - a break that seemed to have been long overdue for a lineup hitting well below its potential - a distant memory.

The Nationals, hitting .218, have plated just four runs in their past 24 innings and in their latest effort looked like a team missing Silver Slugger-winning third baseman Ryan Zimmerman.

But the Nationals, 18 games into the season, aren’t ready to panic. Not yet.

“I’d say a month from now if we’re right here we may need to change our approach a little bit,” LaRoche said.

“We’re at .500 and we’re without our best player and nobody’s hitting,” Werth said. “As tough as it’s been going for us, we’re not in bad shape. We’ve been grinding out games and been winning games by doing the little things, and I don’t really know any one person in this team that has reached their potential with the bat so far this season. We get that going, we’ll be fine.”

The question facing them now, though, is when that will be. The rotation - the team’s biggest question mark entering the season - has fared admirably in keeping Washington in nearly every game, with starters going at least five innings in each outing and turning in quality efforts in more than half of them.

Nationals pitchers entered the game with the third-best ERA in the National League and even when it was obvious that Thursday’s starter, Tom Gorzelanny, admittedly didn’t have his best stuff, he still gave them five innings. He left having allowed just two hits, including a two-run homer by Matt Holliday in the first inning.

By the time Albert Pujols sent a two-run homer over the visitors bullpen in left field in a three-run eighth off of reliever Collin Balester, the game had already been lost for the Nationals, who moved just one runner, Werth, into scoring position all afternoon.

“It’s baffling to think that, ‘How come I can go out there and feel [bad] and only give up two hits when I can feel really good and give up three runs and eight hits?’ ” Gorzelanny said. “It’s just one of those that I can’t really explain. It’s tough to swallow giving up two hits and we lose the game. It’s not a really good feeling, but I just take it in stride. I can’t really say I pitched great. I made some mistakes and I paid for them.”

Zimmerman, who is not on the road trip because of an abdominal strain, is eligible to come off the disabled list Monday, but all signs indicate that will not happen. He’s still at least three days away from being re-evaluated to begin baseball activities and would most likely need to go on a rehab assignment to face live pitching before returning to the active roster.

It’s a safe bet that while one player won’t immediately solve the Nationals’ offensive woes, Zimmerman’s return would provide a much-needed boost to a unit that is floundering without him.

“Zim’s not here, so that’s not something that’s even worth thinking about,” Nationals manager Jim Riggleman said Thursday when asked if the loss made it clear how much the team has missed Zimmerman.

“We’ll just welcome him back when he gets back. In the meantime, we’re getting very good play from our third basemen defensively and… we’ve just got to scratch out wins. When Zim gets back it’ll have the feeling of making a big-time trade.”

• Amanda Comak can be reached at acomak@washingtontimes.com.

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