Lack of depth in rotation has Nats going in circles

Lack of reliable 4th starter after 'Big 3' hampers team

Baseball

September 12, 2005|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Washington Nationals can scrap. That much seems clear.

They seemed to face a terrible mismatch yesterday against the division-leading Atlanta Braves.

Throwing for the Braves: John Smoltz, a borderline Hall of Fame candidate who's still near the top of his game with an assortment of pitches among the most devilish in the sport.

Throwing for the Nationals: 23-year-old Jason Bergmann, a rookie who had never started a game in the big leagues.

And it was a mismatch. Smoltz pitched an efficient seven innings and was followed by five relievers, while the Nationals ended up using eight pitchers. But as soon as Smoltz came out, the Nationals touched four Atlanta relievers for five runs in the eighth, changing a script that couldn't have seemed more linear.

The Braves changed it again as Chipper and Andruw Jones hit long, two-out homers off usually impregnable closer Chad Cordero to snatch back victory for the division leaders. The 9-7 loss left the Nationals 4-6 on a pivotal homestand against three fellow National League playoff contenders.

"I'm just upset," said Cordero, who had the Braves down to their last out. "They battled their way back for the whole game, and then I went out and blew it."

It was a head-spinning affair that embodied Washington's whole season - low expectations, lots of excitement, burgeoning hopes and an unsteady finish.

"It was a good comeback, it was stirring," said Nationals manager Frank Robinson. "We just didn't finish it off."

The Nationals were down 6-2 through seven. But then the team's struggling offense strung together a series of hits and walks that pulled it ahead - until the Jones boys did their worst. Andruw Jones was a bane to the Nationals all weekend, hitting four homers to move his major league-leading total to 49.

The Nationals are now a secondary story line in the four-team wild-card race. The leaders, the Houston Astros and Florida Marlins, will play a four-game series this week, a stretch that could produce a clear favorite or leave the race as muddled as it has been for the past month.

More signs pointed down than up for the Nationals as they finished the homestand four games behind Houston.

No matter whom he tried, Robinson could not find a reliable fourth starter to tack onto his front three of Livan Hernandez, John Patterson and Esteban Loaiza. That meant that every few days, he had to throw a cobbling of relievers.

Worse still, Patterson and Loaiza were rocked in their last starts and Hernandez pitched well but not well enough. Those three starters have been the bedrock of the Nationals' surprising season.

The "Big Three," as Robinson calls them, gave the Nationals their best moments on the homestand, winning three straight against the Philadelphia Phillies and Marlins and allowing four earned runs in 23 2/3 innings in those starts.

The rotation remains the weapon opponents most fear.

"They've got great pitching, and that's what keeps you around this time of year," Smoltz said.

If the starters falter, there's little evidence the offense can pick up the slack consistently.

"That's the way it's been all year for us," Robinson said. "You're not gonna see a lot of runs. Our high-water mark is four or five runs."

Washington's best bet to get on base, Nick Johnson, is at best 75 percent healthy. Sluggers Jose Guillen and Preston Wilson spent most of the homestand flailing at the plate. Yesterday, Robinson benched Wilson, the team's chief acquisition for the stretch run, saying he wanted to "inject new blood in the lineup."

"It can't get any worse," he said.

The Nationals now go on the road to play three each against the New York Mets, who have fallen out of contention , and the San Diego Padres, who lead the NL West but have hovered around .500 for the past two months.

Robinson said the team will need 85 or 86 wins to be in the wild-card picture at the end. The Nationals would have to have their hottest stretch since June to get there, while Florida or Houston would only have to break even.

"Sure there's still hope," Robinson said after yesterday's loss. "But we're in a pretty deep hole."

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