Nationals’ season is starting to show signs of wear


Washington Nationals manager Jim Riggleman (5) argues with home plate umpire Todd Tichenor, right, during the first inning Sunday. (Nick Wass/Associated Press)
Thomas Boswell
Columnist May 25, 2011

Just be glad the Washington Nationals did not want to sign or trade for you last offseason. You would be in a full body cast by now. Here’s a list of the players who constituted the Nats’ entire winter wish list and what has happened to them so far this year.

Adam LaRoche, the Nats’ $16 million free agent, is hitting .172, just went on the disabled list, will miss at least a month and might end up having season-ending surgery.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

Jorge De La Rosa, whom the Nats offered more than $30 million for three years, faces elbow surgery after a complete tear of his ulnar collateral ligament.Matt Garza, whom the Nats wanted in a package-of-prospects trade, is on the disabled list because of a bone contusion on his pitching elbow.

Zack Greinke, to whom the Nats tried to give a $100 million deal as part of a possible trade, missed a month of the season and has a 5.79 ERA since his return. Even the soft-hitting Nats got a three-run homer by Michael Morse off him in a 6-4 loss Wednesday.

Carlos Pena and Derrek Lee, the Nats’ first two free agent choices to replace Adam Dunn, are having their worst seasons ever, continuing career declines. At least Dunn, hitting .191 after costing the White Sox $55 million, isn’t rubbing it in. Yet. Jayson Werth, decent by comparison, is only on a pace for 60 RBI for his $126 million.

Welcome to a trend. Last year, the Nats signed Jason Marquis for $15 million over two years. He didn’t make it out of April without elbow surgery. Even if, in the back of their minds, the Nats think about offering someone a contract, such as an extension to Ryan Zimmerman, that alone is a curse. The team’s best player, due back in mid-June, will have missed 10 weeks after hurting himself while sliding headfirst into second base — on a throw to third base.

All winter, as Nats fans thought about a season with Stephen Strasburg rehabbing his arm, with Bryce Harper in the minors and Jordan Zimmermann on a post-surgery innings limit, they tried not to mutter, “Wait ’til ’12.” You never know. Surprise years happen. But don’t hold your breath. Enjoy the bullpen, the development of Wilson Ramos and Danny Espinosa and the flashes of Zimmermann’s future. But, at 21-28, after losing seven of eight games, this is a vulnerable team that is pressing.

The steam coming out of the Nats’ ears starts at the top and works down. General Manager Mike Rizzo was fined this week for a tirade at an umpiring crew in New York the previous week. For years Nats execs have felt that umps are more arrogant, confrontational and unaccountable, especially with perennial losing teams. Rizzo intervened in a postgame fuss between Ivan Rodriguez and several umps, but “in protecting a player [from possible suspension], I exceeded my job,” said Rizzo, who has had a vent against the umps building.

“It cost me a lot of money,” he said, “but I’ll sleep like a baby.”

Wear a helmet around the Nats these days. You never know what’ll break out. Last Friday, Marquis showed up Manager Jim Riggleman in a dugout rant after he got an early hook. The dust and the details are still settling. Marquis continued to vent eloquently (and at length) with the aid of a bat, from unseen subterranean places. Whether this Marquis event was also directed at Riggleman or the universe may never be known.

After that game, Riggleman joined the growing list of volcanic Nats by, according to multiple sources, pursuing Marquis for a series of intense clubhouse close encounters. Way to celebrate that 17-5 win, guys. Neither’s rep grew. The Nats haven’t won since.

“I don’t think they are going out to dinner any time soon,” Rizzo said. All say peace reigns now. Riggleman even came out to fuss with umps on Marquis’s behalf Wednesday. Marquis lost anyway. At least Riggleman wasn’t ejected after two pitches. That happened Sunday.

Fines, fusses, feuds. The Nats’ scorecard looks more like a boxing undercard. When the Nats got Werth, they hoped he would make their dugout more like the intense Phillies — not like Philly fans. The Nats need to take a breath. The huge contract to Werth created internal pressure to move toward .500 immediately. But with Zimmerman’s injury and LaRoche playing too hurt to produce anything, this early season has been a salvage operation. Seen that way, it hasn’t been too bad.

The Nats are in the midst of a multiyear transition from a low-budget franchise with bargain-basement reclamation projects everywhere to a team with tons of payroll space to add players to a young core that includes Strasburg, Harper, Zimmerman, Zimmermann, a deep young bullpen and several position players who could be in D.C. for years. That doesn’t even count Werth, who’ll hit more.

“In a couple of weeks, if we can hold the fort, win some games when we get back home and keep our heads afloat, then we’ll get Zimmerman back,” Rizzo said. “It’s human nature to get caught up. A couple of weeks ago: ‘Oh, we swept the Brewers!’ Or: ‘We just lost [five] in a row. Jeez, the wheels are falling off.’ ”

The subtext of this season is simple, but disguised. Pudge Rodriguez, with two ejections in 21 years, hunts down an umpiring crew in a tunnel to scream. A GM snaps and has to open his wallet wide. A veteran pitcher with 100 wins blows his stack at being yanked then smashes the accessories. A gentlemanly manager who has been in the game nearly 40 years suddenly goes all Billy Martin.

The Nats are still losing. What’s different? Maybe they are sick and damn tired of it.

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