PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla., March 27 -- Tony Armas Jr. didn't let it show, either when it happened or afterward. But when he unleashed a fastball to New York Mets second baseman Kaz Matsui in the first inning of a Grapefruit League game Sunday, Armas felt a twinge in his right groin. He finished the inning but didn't return to the game thereafter -- the first of several bad signs on a long, muggy day that ended with the clubhouse doors closed, and Manager Frank Robinson questioning his team's intensity.
"This phase we're in right now," Robinson said, "is not a good phase."
Tony Armas Jr., shown last Tuesday, played down his removal from yesterday's exhibition game.
(John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
_____Nationals Notebook_____D.C. Arms Race
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla., March 27 -- Even with an injury Sunday to starter Tony Armas Jr., the Washington Nationals' pitching staff is beginning to take shape -- not because of how players are pitching, but because of contract situations.
"We have 14 pitchers in camp," General Manager Jim Bowden said. "All 14 deserve to go north. But three can't go north."
Thus, the Nationals likely will make decisions based on which players can be sent to the minors without exposing them to other teams, a source said Sunday. Six players are basically fighting for those three spots -- Joey Eischen, Joe Horgan, Gary Majewski, John Patterson, Jon Rauch and T.J. Tucker. Of those six, three have options remaining -- Horgan, Majewski and Rauch. Those players could be sent to Class AAA New Orleans without the Nationals risking losing them. Other teams could claim Eischen, Patterson or Tucker should the Nationals try to send them down.
"The team doesn't want to lose anybody it has," said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because final decisions haven't been announced.
Armas strained his right groin muscle Sunday, and will be reevaluated today. Should Armas or any other pitcher be out for a significant period of time, Horgan most likely would earn the final spot because he is left-handed. He and Eischen are the only lefties left in camp, and Manager Frank Robinson said he would prefer to have two in the bullpen, particularly because he doesn't have one in the starting rotation.
Options will almost certainly be the deciding factor in the battle for the final spot on the bench as well. Outfielder Ryan Church has an option remaining; outfielder J.J. Davis and infielder Carlos Baerga don't. A source said if Church is sent to New Orleans, he'll likely play every day in center field, an indication that the organization is watching Endy Chavez very closely.
A Closer Look at the Closer
Robinson enters the final week of spring training still undecided about how he'll handle the closer's job -- giving it to Chad Cordero or leaving it to a committee. Cordero has a 3.24 ERA in six appearances. Four different Nationals have saves this spring.
Armas described his removal as "precautionary," and he will be evaluated again Monday morning. But Robinson, who is typically cautious with injured players, said he wasn't sure whether the right-hander will be able to make his next start, which is scheduled for Friday and is supposed to be his final tuneup for the regular season.
"I'm always concerned because groin injuries are very tricky," Robinson said. "They're very difficult to treat, and if you're not very careful and get them 100 percent, they can go out on you again. So I'll be very concerned until he walks out there on that mound the next time and shows me he's 100 percent."
The Nationals, right now, aren't giving 100 percent. They managed only four hits -- including solo homers from Jose Guillen and Brad Wilkerson -- against the Mets, and gave several indications that, with just a week before Opening Day, they aren't yet playing with the urgency demanded during the regular season. In the sixth, Guillen drifted back on a catchable ball hit by David Wright, inexplicably allowing it to sail over his head. "No excuse," he said. "I just missed it." In the eighth, center fielder Endy Chavez hit a shot to center that looked like it might be a triple, but Chavez slowed down coming around first, settling for a double.
The ugly, 9-4 loss was the Nationals' fourth in a row, and Robinson -- who didn't like the way those losses have come about -- closed the clubhouse to talk to the team for several minutes afterward.
"It's the time of spring training where you're supposed to be doing the things to get ready for the season," Robinson said. "And it wasn't just this game. We've been a little sloppy, a little lax, as a team the last four or five ballgames. I've been -- not ignoring it -- but holding back a little bit."
Sunday, he chose to talk to the team. Robinson said he didn't yell. "We just talked," catcher Gary Bennett said. The players seemed to agree with Robinson's assessment.
"The intensity [stunk] today," outfielder Ryan Church said. "It's time to get it going. This was a wake-up call."
The day brought a temporary end to what had been a glitch-free spring training for the Nationals. Robinson has preached that this team must be healthy and play hard and smart in order to compete.
"We got to show him that we're ready for the season," Guillen said. "If you don't show him now that you're ready for the season, then when are you going to show him? I know spring training doesn't mean anything to a lot of people, but when it's late in the spring, you really got to go."
When Armas will be able to go again won't be determined until Monday at the earliest. This spring, Armas had felt completely healthy for the first time since he underwent shoulder surgery in May 2003. Shortly after he was removed from the game, he was casually eating a sandwich in the clubhouse -- and smiling.
"It's just precautionary," Armas said. "I wanted to go out there, but they said to just take it easy."
Armas hadn't pitched more than 3 2/3 innings in a game this spring, and was scheduled to go deep into a game for the first time. He retired the first three Mets in order before coming out, and said he felt good about the way he threw.