More unpredictable pitching drops Nats back to .500

Through 14 games of the 2010 season, the Nationals are, in some ways, the epitome of an average team. They’ve won as many as they’ve lost. They rank in the upper third of the National League in some categories, the lower third in a few and the middle in most. They are consistently inconsistent, which is better than being consistently unwatchable.

But how - and for how long - can an average team be constructed from such disparate parts? From these results, stirring one day and stultifying the next? From comeback wins laid against one-touchdown losses?

It’s possibly the worst kind of average team to be, because it signals the Nationals, losers of 205 games the last two years, could be capable of so much more if they could shake free of the roots from the last two seasons that occasionally still tug at their ankles.

They failed to do that on Tuesday night, losing to the Colorado Rockies 10-4 a night after soundly beating last year’s NL wild-card winner. The Nationals got down 10-0 in the first three innings against the Rockies, who were playing with heavy hearts after the death of team president Keli McGregor on Tuesday morning, and never mounted a serious bid to win the game.

Jim Riggleman addesses the media after the Nats’ 10-4 loss to the Rockies

The culprit, as it’s been each time the Nationals have lost this season, was Washington’s bipolar pitching staff. In the last four games, the Nationals had a starter throw a four-hit shutout (Livan Hernandez), fail to record an out (Jason Marquis), pitch eight strong innings (Craig Stammen, after a talk with Hernandez) and leave after two ugly ones (Scott Olsen, on Tuesday).

“It’s odd, yeah. Usually, it wouldn’t be as drastic as it has been,” manager Jim Riggleman said. “We’ve had some outstanding performances and we’ve had some ones that our pitchers, themselves, are just feeling like, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me.’”

Olsen allowed six runs on seven hits in two-plus innings, repeatedly leaving flat fastballs up in the strike zone. The first offense came with Troy Tulowitzki at the plate in the second inning; Olsen threw him a 2-1 fastball, 88 mph and over the most appetizing part of the plate; it was up and middle-in, when it was supposed to be down and away. Tulowitzki blasted it to right for a solo homer, and things wouldn’t get any better from there.

He gave up four runs in the third, and was lifted for Tyler Walker, who allowed another four runs, three of them on a bases-clearing double by Rockies pitcher Jorge de la Rosa. In those two innings, the Nationals’ win probability chart resembled the jagged profile of a Vail black diamond, all steep drops with only a few brief respites.

“Our job as relievers is to come in there, minimize damage and get people out,” Walker said. “The hanging split to de la Rosa is pretty much what did me in right there. I wanted to pick up Scott in that situation right there, and I didn’t execute in my first inning.”

At the end of the third, the Nationals were staring at their second 10-run deficit in three days.

For Olsen, the start came after 5 2/3 innings in Philadelphia last Thursday that were a lot better than they looked in the final box score. That was his first major-league start of the year, and it gave the Nationals hope the 26-year-old could solidify the back end of the rotation after taking over for Garrett Mock.

Olsen kept his velocity between 88-90 mph, but he said his health was the only positive he could take from the game.

“It’s encouraging that I’ll be able to get my arm over my head tomorrow,” he said. “But other than that, there’s really not a whole lot of positives to take out of today.”

Whatever runs they could get from there would only serve to cauterize the damage left by Olsen and Walker. Ryan Zimmerman hit his second home run of the year, and Justin Maxwell and Ian Desmond helped string together a couple runs in the sixth. But there wasn’t going to be much the Nationals’ offense could do to make the game legitimate again.

Even though he needed 118 pitches to get through five innings, de la Rosa kept the Nationals down with a lively fastball still hitting the mid-90s at the end of his start. The Rockies’ bullpen allowed five hits, but no runs.

The day where the Nationals can get five straight days of competent - if not brilliant - starting pitching is coming soon, they hope. But there are no guarantees of that, especially with Marquis working overtime to recalibrate his delivery. Only Hernandez lacks an outing of four innings or less, and he’s been known to have some ugly days, too.

The fact that Washington can hope for consistency, instead of mere flashes of competence, represents progress in and of itself. With just a little steadier pitching, though, they seem capable of so much more.

“We’ve had a lot of them with double-digit runs scored against us a few times,” Riggleman said. “We just can’t have that.”