For starters, who let the air out?

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The last time a Nationals starting pitcher didn't allow runs in the first two innings was last Saturday at Los Angeles, when Livan Hernandez gave up one earned run in seven strong innings.

Alas, after Ryan Zimmerman's first-inning, two-run home run, the Nationals couldn't score and lost to the Dodgers 3-2 in 10 innings.

At least it was a competitive game, and possibly would have been won in nine innings if someone had covered first base when Adam Kennedy threw the ball there after a sacrifice fly caught by Michael Morse.

Sunday ushered in a four-game stretch where the starters have done little to shut down the opposition early, and the Nats have been playing catch-up to no avail during a five-game losing streak.

Jason Marquis pitched poorly and made an error on a simple bunt to give the Dodgers four runs, one earned, in the first inning of Sunday's 8-3 loss at L.A. Three innings later, he was out of the game with an ERA of 15.32.

Stephen Strasburg struggled with command early Tuesday, walking rookie Logan Morrison (who had 47 previous major league at-bats), then giving up a two-run homer to Dan Uggla in the first inning of an 8-2 loss to the Marlins to open the homestand. He gave up a two-run double to Uggla two innings later and six runs in his 4 1/3 innings and showed rust from not pitching in nearly three weeks.

We're all sure Strasburg will be better Sunday against the free-swinging, strikeout-prone Diamondbacks.

Wednesday, it was more of the same from Scott Olsen, who retired two of the first three hitters of the game, then gave up four straight hits and had to intentionally walk the number eight batter to get the pitcher for the last out. The damage: four runs on five hits, the crowd of 15,061 silenced, and a hard-to-watch 9-5 loss in 3 hours and 8 minutes.

Thursday's nearly two-hour rain delay didn't dampen Florida's offense. Livan walked Uggla to lead off the second and rookie sensation Mike Stanton blasted an opposite field home run over the scoreboard to give the Fish all the runs they needed in a 5-0 win. The Nationals didn't get two hits in an inning until the seventh and the game was over by then. The hearty few thousand who stayed for the five-hour marathon had nothing to cheer for except Teddy coming in second in the Presidents Race.

So, where did our team - that has played so well at home this year, at least until this week - go?

When the Nationals fall so far behind early, it takes away everything Jim Riggleman can do to spark the ballclub. The running game is shut down; hitters seem to press to get it all back at once, rather than stringing hits together; and the bullpen is forced to throw way more innings than it's supposed to. In the Florida series, the pen threw 14 2/3 innings, and that was with Livan pitching into the seventh on Thursday!

You can't play baseball like that.

A week ago, the Nats were about to win their 50th game Friday night, and things were looking good to head for 70 to 80 wins in 2010. Still stuck on 49, they have to find a way to start getting people out early in games so the offense can relax and do its thing - an offense that's third from the bottom of the league in runs scored and now has injuries to Nyjer Morgan and Josh Willingham.

Things need to turn around in a hurry, or September evenings will be very empty and quiet on South Capitol Street.