New digs, same old Nationals

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON - The Washington Nationals opened the doors this season to a sleek, $611 million stadium - Nationals Park.

The owners and the city provided fans with cherry blossoms, enviable sightlines, an expansive plaza beyond the outfield and a kids play area.

But one thing management can't do is put runs and hits up on the new the 4,500 square-foot, high-definition scoreboard - the largest in the major leagues.

Even after signs of improvement - including sweeping the Cincinnati Reds in a recent home series - the Nationals were last in baseball in batting average (.244) and hits and second-to-last in runs. In one miserable July stretch, the club was shut out three times in four games.

The lack of consistent punch has turned Washington's season into an exercise in patience. Players and fans alike must wait for the hitters to become as glitzy an attraction as their new park.

"I'd be lying if I said it wasn't frustrating watching the Nationals struggle this year," says Colin Mills, president of the Nats Fan Club. "The shutouts are particularly tough. High-scoring shootouts can be stressful, but they're still thrilling. Shutouts are just draining."

Mills and other fans take solace in knowing that, as of Aug. 3, the team's roster was the youngest in the major leagues. After ending a nine-game losing streak as August began, the team began to hit better before going back to its hitless ways - a long string of scoreless innings - against the Milwaukee Brewers.

All along, club officials have counseled patience.

"Let them develop and grow," general manager Jim Bowden says hopefully. "Give them a chance to come together."

Says Mills: "It's like watching a skyscraper go up. It may not look like much now, but you can squint a little and imagine what it will look like when it's all done."

But the wait can be taxing.

Randy St. Claire, the team's pitching coach, says he has tried to teach pitchers to avoid frustration when they gaze at the scoreboard and see a glaring "0" in Washington's run column.

Consider the plight of Shawn Hill, who lost back-to-back June starts in which the Nats were shut out every inning. The same fate befell Odalis Perez in July: two starts, zero run support, two losses.

Perez has lost four games this season in which the Nats didn't score a run.

"Pitchers need to try to stay the same as close as possible no matter the score," St. Claire says. "I talk to them all the time about controlling what they can control. Umpires can squeeze you, balls get lost in the sun. Lots of thing can happen."

Pitcher Tim Redding concedes that pitchers do sometimes find a comfort zone when they're ahead in the game.

"When you're in the lead, you're probably more willing to throw the ball over the plate," he says.

But Redding, who lost a 1-0, complete-game decision to the San Francisco Giants in July, says it would only hurt his pitching if he allowed himself to become annoyed when his team can't score.

"These guys are trying to get hits every time they're up. It's not for lack of trying. Sometimes the hits come in bunches," the pitcher says.

St. Claire says he feels for his staff.

"Of course, after the game you feel badly and you say, 'I wish we'd have scored a few for you,' " he says.

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