With an eight-player trade, the Washington Nationals signaled that they are doing what they can to ensure the second half of their season is different than the first.
One day after completing a deal that netted them outfielder Austin Kearns, shortstop Felipe Lopez and reliever Ryan Wagner, the Nationals open a three-game series with the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park on Friday.
The Nationals (38-52) are last place in the NL East, 15 1/2 games behind the first-place New York Mets, a season after being 52-36 at the All-Star break and leading the division. Washington has eight losing streaks of three or more games in 2005, including four in the last month.
That poor play prompted Washington to make some long-anticipated changes. On Thursday, the Nationals dealt relievers Gary Majewski and Bill Bray along with shortstop Royce Clayton, infielder Brendan Harris and pitching prospect Daryl Thompson to Cincinnati in exchange for Kearns, Lopez and Wagner.
“Philosophically, we believe that when you have a chance to trade a middle reliever for an everyday player, that’s helpful,” Nationals general manager Jim Bowden said. “Over the long run, if you look at a player for the next five to seven years, pitchers are more of a risk to injuries than everyday players.”
The everyday players in Kearns and Lopez will likely jump right into a lineup that desperately needs help, as the Nats are batting .257—near the bottom of the league.
Kearns is hitting .274 with 16 homers and 50 RBIs this season, while Lopez is batting .268 with nine homers and 30 RBIs.
Washington will miss Majewski coming out of the bullpen, as the right-hander went 3-2 with a 3.58 ERA in 46 relief appearances.
“Do these deals turn this team around? Of course not,” Bowden said. “But it heads us in the right direction.”
The Nationals need a new direction after being swept in three games by San Diego before the break and blowing a six-run lead in the finale Sunday, losing 10-9. Washington failed to capitalize on a rare offensive outburst in that game, as Nick Johnson and Alex Escobar had three-run homers and Brian Schneider hit a two-run shot.
Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman went 2-for-5 and is batting .417 (20-for-48) with 12 RBIs during a 12-game hitting streak, the longest by a Nationals player this season.
Ramon Ortiz (6-7, 4.85 ERA) hopes that hitting carries over as he tries to avoid his fourth loss in six starts. The right-hander won five straight outings from May 18-June 7, but is 1-3 with a 4.88 ERA in five starts since.
Ortiz held San Diego to three runs over 6 2-3 innings on a season-high 122 pitches in his last outing, a 3-2 loss last Friday, but struggled with his control, issuing four walks.
Ortiz is 0-3 with a 6.38 ERA on six or more days’ rest this season. He is 1-0 with a 3.76 ERA in four career starts against Pittsburgh.
The Nationals play their next six games on the road, where they have lost eight of their last nine and been outscored 56-26 in that span.
They have had better luck against the Pirates, however, winning 14 of the last 19 meetings with Pittsburgh, including two of three from May 5-7.
The Pirates (30-60) own the majors’ worst record and have gone 4-20 since June 15, losing eight straight series. They have the second-most losses at the All-Star break in franchise history, trailing only the 1953 squad, which was 28-61.
“The most frustrating thing is probably the way we’ve lost—when we’ve been in games and then shot ourselves in the foot, either defensively or with our situational hitting,” said Pirates shortstop Jack Wilson, 5-for-8 in his career against Ortiz.
Pittsburgh has lost a league-high 25 games by one run, but was outscored 14-5 in back-to-back losses to Philadelphia before the break. The Pirates dropped two of three in the series, including the finale 8-3.
Zach Duke (5-8, 5.17) gave up five earned runs and a season high-tying 10 hits over 5 1-3 innings of that defeat, and will be back on the mound for Pittsburgh on Friday.
The left-hander, 8-2 with a 1.81 ERA last season, lost his only career start against the Nationals, 5-4 on May 7. He allowed five runs over six innings in the defeat, which sparked a personal four-game losing streak.
After hosting the All-Star game Tuesday, the Pirates are opening a six-game stretch at PNC Park, where they are 20-24 this season.