Nats Fall Victim to Troubling Trend
An Early Deficit Results in a Loss
K Diamondbacks 7,
At some point, when this cold snap is over and spring really sets in, the Washington Nationals will host a game at RFK Stadium. Their pitcher, whoever it may be, will retire the opposition in order in the first inning. And the Nationals will come to the plate, string some hits together, and — close your eyes and allow yourself to imagine it — take a lead.
That did not happen last night, when 16,617 hardy souls sat through the latest debacle, a 7- 1 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks in temperatures better suited for the Iditarod than baseball. Right- hander John Patterson, in dire need of putting behind a shaky Opening Day start, allowed three runs in the first, and the copier machine that seems to spit out the Nationals’ results cranked up again — fall behind early, quiet the crowd, and have a tough time recovering, a good recipe to lose five of
six to start the season.
“ We’re dying to get a lead,” Manager Manny Acta said.
A simple analysis, but one that leads directly to the first anomaly of this young season. In falling behind 6- 0 last night, the Nationals have the distinction of becoming the only team to trail by at least 4- 0 in their first six games of the year. In fact, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, no team since 1900, when modern day records begin, had done so even five straight times.
All of this leads to some amazing statistical factoids, none of them good for the Nationals. The club has now played 54 innings and has held the lead after exactly one of those frames — the ninth inning on Wednesday, when Washington rallied for three runs and their only win of the year, 7- 6 over the Florida Marlins. An early 1- 0 lead? Hasn’t happened, in part because the Nationals’ ERA in the first inning is 12.00.
“ You don’t want to be in that situation,” said right fielder Austin Kearns, who contributed the Nationals’ run on a homer in the sixth. “ But you can’t sit here and say, ‘ Oh, we’re in a hole.’ You take that approach, things get worse before they get better. That’s the last thing we need to be thinking.”
But as much talk as there has been during this hellacious first week that there is no need to even identify, much less press, any sort of panic button, there are indications that the club’s hitters are gripping the bat tightly already. Washington hitters have come to the plate 24 times with runners in scoring position in their three games against Arizona. They are still looking for their first hit, the main reason they have but five runs in the series.
“ We need to do better,” shortstop Felipe Lopez said.
Patterson might fall into that category as well. He attributed his struggles in a 32⁄ 3- inning, sixrun outing against Florida to a mechanical flaw that hindered his velocity. But on a night when the temperature quickly dipped into the 30s and the wind chill made it feel much colder, the 29- year- old from the warm weather of east Texas looked uncomfortable from the start. He walked two of the first three men he faced, then gave up a two- run double to Chad Tracy on a fastball he was merely trying to guide in for a strike.
“ I don’t think you ever really, truly get loose,” Patterson said. “ I never broke a sweat. It’s hard to hold on to the ball. The ball’s real slick. You can’t get any moisture on your fingers. . . . Tonight, it was tough.”
But after falling behind 3- 0 in the first, Patterson found himself pumping his fist when he worked out of a one- out, first- and- third jam in the fifth. Coming off of elbow surgery that limited him to eight starts last season, Acta and pitching coach Randy St. Claire believe Patterson still needs to build arm strength.
“ He can’t be top- shape, 100 percent John Patterson yet,” Acta said.
What he gave them, however unremarkable, was minimal damage, leaving after 88 pitches, just 44 strikes, and a 3- 0 deficit.
“ I gave us a chance in some really, really tough conditions,” he said. “ That’s a positive.”
Such positive pins must be searched for in this haystack of negativity. The Nationals might have helped Patterson out with one big hit, but his opponent happened to be the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner, Brandon Webb. The man with “ the best sinker in the game,” according to Kearns, shrugged off base runners as if he knew he would get the ground ball he needed. First and second with two outs in the second: groundout from Brian Schneider. Bases loaded with one out in the third: double play ball from Dmitri Young. Man on second with two down in the fifth: groundout from Kory Casto.
Afterward, Acta was pressed about his club’s inability to be competitive, with four of five losses by at least six runs. He shrugged it off.
“ It’s not going to be an easy month,” Acta said. “ I’ve been saying all along: I’m very positive and upbeat and all of that. But I have never been telling any of you guys it’s going to be easy.”
Arizona’s Chris Snyder is greeted at the plate by Orlando Hudson after scoring on a double by Eric Byrnes off reliever Jesus Colome in the sixth inning.