- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 3, 2011

The dam finally broke for the Washington Nationals on Sunday. Four outs into the game, Jason Marquis was standing ankle-deep in Runs Allowed - seven of them, six earned - with more on the way. Davey Johnson, the Nats’ new manager, could have taken a Jet Ski to the mound to remove him.

Who couldn’t have seen this coming? After a month of tight, low-scoring games - most of which, miraculously, had ended up in the win column - the locals were overdue for a 10-2 stinker like Sunday’s, in which they trailed 8-0 after 1 1/2 innings and did little to fire up the Fourth of July weekend crowd.

Let’s face it, the Nationals came pretty close to maxing out in the first half of the season - not individually, maybe, but collectively. They were 38-37 when Jim Riggleman, their original skipper, decided he’d rather go fishing - this, despite the absence of Ryan Zimmerman for 58 games and generally miserable offensive production.

The way the Nats have been winning almost defies belief - in the Live Ball Era, at least. In a recent 31-day stretch, they won nine games in which they scored two runs or fewer - nine! (Franchise record for a full season: 13 by the 1972 and ‘80 Expos.) In other words, they might not be leading the majors in homers, but they’re well ahead in two other, less publicized, categories: smoke and mirrors.

You can’t walk a finer line than the Nationals have been walking. And you can only walk that line if you have really good pitching, really good defense and really good fortune. But does anybody truly expect Jason Marquis, a 7-2 pitcher in the first half, to duplicate that performance in the second half? (FYI: He’s been roughed up in three of his last four starts.) What about Livan Hernandez? How much longer can he keep fooling batters?

In the past seven games, moreover, the Nats have committed 10 errors - including five one nightmarish night in Anaheim. Is the worm beginning to turn a bit there, too?

This is the situation Johnson has strolled into after a decadelong sabbatical from big-league managing. He has taken over a club that was playing about as well as anyone could have dreamed, winning 13 of 15 games, and now the club is starting to play, well, the way people feared it might play.

Take Sunday. The Pirates’ batters aren’t any more fearsome than the Nationals’, but they racked up a season-high 16 hits against Marquis and his successors. On the Washington side, meanwhile, Johnson saw Zimmerman, his No. 3 hitter, walked twice - perhaps because he had Matt Stairs (.155) and Jayson Werth (.223) hitting behind him (instead of Michael Morse and Laynce Nix, who were nursing injuries).

“I feel they’re right on the edge of breaking out,” Davey said of his slumbering lineup. “We got nine hits.”

What else can the guy say, under the circumstances? These are the cards he’s been dealt.

In the sixth inning, by the way, Werth was plunked in the left elbow by a Kevin Correia pitch and came out of the game. And what did No. 28 have to say about this? Unfortunately, we’ll have to use our imaginations, because Jayson once again waved away the media.

This has become a too-common scene in the Nationals’ clubhouse: their $126 million right fielder, one of the faces of the franchise, refusing to stand in front of his locker and field questions. Yes, we all know Jayson is going through hard times, as every ballplayer does on occasion. But we also know he’s 32 years old - old enough to man up.

Another free agent who signed a megacontract this year, Carl Crawford of the Boston Red Sox, also has struggled. The organization made it clear to him, though, that there would be no running and hiding in the trainer’s room.

“What we were trying to give him a heads-up on,” manager Terry Francona told the New York Times, “was [that] every night there’s going to be a microphone in front of your face, so you can’t be trying to sneak out the back door. On the bad nights, you’ve got to stand there and take it. … There’s a flip side. With the good comes the other stuff you got to handle.”

As the days pass, Werth seems less and less willing to handle the “other stuff.”

You get the sense reality is starting to slap Johnson in the face - just as it did Joe Gibbs in 2004, the first season of his return to the Redskins. I mean, just think: Davey went 2-5 in his first week as the Nationals’ manager, and the only thing separating him from 0-7 were late-inning pinch hits by Stairs and Pudge Rodriguez, neither of whom has exactly been terrorizing pitchers.

All the good vibes from the Nats’ 13-2 streak are gone. They’re back to Square One with Johnson. Can they be as respectable, from here on out, as they were under Riggleman?

Not if their highest-paid player continues to play hide-and-seek, that’s for darn sure.

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