Worries for Washington

Having the No 1 draft pick and a star pitcher in Strasburg set to debut are no consolation for poor form this week.

Washington 's Matt Capps shows his frustration after Sunday's defeat to the Cincinnati Reds.
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The Washington Nationals players, at the moment, do not care that they have the No 1 pick in next week's draft, or that Stephen Strasburg , the pitching phenom, will have his big-league debut tonight at Nationals Park against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Instead, the Nationals are upset about the present after a 1-5 June slump and a longer 7-16 skid that has left them grinding their teeth with frustration.

During the last four seasons, a 27-31 mark would have been consolation to a bad team going nowhere. Now, it is considered a failure. "Until recently, I could hit a gnat's [backside] on a bullseye with a fastball low and away. Now I'm leaving everything up," Matt Capps, the frustrated reliever said. In a 5-4 loss to the Cincinnati Reds on Sunday night, he blew his third save of the week because his right fielder missed a catchable line drive and an umpire blew a third-strike checked swing call. His next pitch was struck for a game-winning hit.

After Capps exonerated his teammates and the officials for their respective roles in the setback, he then took full responsibility for his sins, before the media left him. "Somebody get me a live chicken," Capps muttered as the reporters departed. Animal sacrifice to change your luck is still frowned upon, but if Strasburg finds a mound of feathers in front of Capps's locker when he arrives today, do not be surprised.

A hot rookie is nice, but it is not as important as your closer's luck. That can ice a whole team and wreck an entire season if it does not change quickly. The Nationals' anger is actually the good news. The draft pick and the Strasburg debut, a genuine baseball big event, are great for the front office to sell to fans. But players themselves know that help from a draft pick is two to four years away, and even a pitcher as fine as Strasburg can only add a few wins in the 16 or so starts he has left before he hits his team-imposed inning limit.

For the Nationals to fulfil their goals this season, they have to start playing better. "The only positive is that we're only four games under .500 and we have not done anything offensively [all year]," Adam Dunn said. "At least we have got [104] games left." Nationals fans wonder if the team is really improved enough to continue at a 75-win pace, 16 better than last year. But that is where the Nats are, even though they are not happy about it. Jim Riggleman, the Washington manager, said: "Our fans give us a long leash. Internally, we're saying the heck with that. Let's get over the hump." * The Washington Post

Players of the week ? Clay Buchholz, Red Sox. Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and John Lackey were expected to be the heart of Boston's rotation, but Buchholz has been the team's best starter. In two outings last week, he was 2-0 and did not allow a run over 16 innings. ? Armando Galarraga, Tigers: A blown call on what should have been the final out in a perfect game did not take away from his accomplishment. The grace with which he handled himself impressed. Teams of the week ? Atlanta Braves: Before splitting four games with the Dodgers, the Braves won an impressive nine in a row. ? Los Angeles Angels: Despite missing the injured Kendry Morales, below, the Angels went 8-2 and are a half-game off first place in the AL West. Duds of the week ? Baltimore Orioles: They have ended a 10-game losing streak Sunday, but Dave Trembley, their manager, was fired. ? Adam LaRoche, Diamondbacks: LaRoche was supposed to be a productive free agent signing, but last week he was just four-for-22 without an extra-base hit and just one RBI. Series of the week LA Dodgers v St Louis Last night to tomorrow. The Cardinals are first in the NL Central and the Dodgers, much improved after a sluggish first six weeks, are close on the heels of the first-place Padres in the NL West. Boston v Philadelphia Friday to Sunday. This is the best match-up as interleague play resumes. The Red Sox took two of three in Philly last month and sent the Phils into an offensive tailspin.