WASHINGTON (AP) – The Washington Nationals know their offense isn’t going to make things easy. When their defense and pitching struggle, too, victories are really tough.

Cal Eldred made his first start since 2001 and combined with four St. Louis relievers to stretch Washington’s scoring drought to 21 innings, leading the Cardinals past the Nationals 6-0 Sunday.

Washington’s own spot starter, John Halama (0-1), turned in five strong innings. But with one out in the sixth, he got into trouble, and the Cardinals scored three runs in that inning despite only one solidly hit ball. An error, two walks, a double steal and a couple of close plays did the rest.

The Cardinals added three more runs in the eighth off Mike Stanton and Jason Bergmann, with the help of another double steal, Abraham Nunez’s two-run bloop single and John Rodriguez’s RBI single.

The Nationals got no such clutch hitting – they barely got any hits for the second straight day. On Saturday, Jason Marquis ended a seven-start losing streak and earned his first career shutout, giving up just two hits in a 6-0 win.

On Sunday, Eldred filled in because 15-game winner Mark Mulder was scratched again with a stiff neck. Eldred allowed two hits over three-plus innings. He was followed by Brad Thompson (2-0), who gave up one hit in three innings. Julian Tavarez, Al Reyes and Ray King finished up the combined four-hitter.

Here’s how desperate the Nationals are for offense: Cleanup hitter Jose Guillen tried to bunt in the fourth inning with two men on and no outs. His fielder’s choice got a runner to third with one out, but Preston Wilson followed by grounding into a double play.

The Nationals have the worst offense in baseball, last in nearly every major category, including runs and batting average. That’s why they’ve been so inconsistent since the All-Star break despite having strong pitching and being on pace to set franchise records for fewest errors and fewest unearned runs allowed in a season.

David Eckstein hit a one-out double to the gap over left fielder Brad Wilkerson’s head in the sixth. After walking Jim Edmonds, Halama was finished – having given the Nationals more than they expected from someone whose only previous start this season, in May for Boston, lasted five innings.

Reliever Hector Carrasco promptly walked pinch-hitter Rodriguez, loading the bases. Yadier Molina grounded to short, and Cristian Guzman threw to second for a forceout, with backup second baseman Jamey Carroll’s throw to first too high to complete the double play. Eckstein scored, and Carroll slapped his glove.

With So Taguchi up, the Cardinals put on a double steal. Backup catcher Gary Bennett’s throw to second was cut off by Carroll. But his throw home was up the third-base line as Edmonds barreled into Bennett, and Carroll was charged with an error.

Trainers came out to check on Edmonds, who didn’t return to the game, and Bennett.

Taguchi then hit a comebacker, but the ball ricocheted away from Carrasco, and his throw to first was too late. It was ruled a single, with Molina coming home for an unearned run that made it 3-0, drawing boos from many in the announced crowd of 41,130.

Notes: Cardinals 1B Albert Pujols was ejected in the first inning for arguing after he was caught stealing. … The Nationals didn’t start a left-hander through their first 128 games but did so Saturday and Sunday. … Guillen went 0-for-4, dropping his average to .298. The Nationals have no position players hitting .300 or better.

AP-ES-08-28-05 1610EDT


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