Nationals Stand Ground Against the Giants

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 7, 2005

SAN FRANCISCO, May 6 - They keep falling down, pitchers and position players, stars and role players. Friday night, the Nationals - already with 10 players on the disabled list - played their first game without second baseman Jose Vidro, out with an ankle injury that is still undergoing tests. And in the seventh inning, San Francisco Giants reliever Tyler Walker plunked Nationals right fielder Jose Guillen on the left elbow.

Guillen left the game, and X-rays taken on site were negative. Guillen is listed as day-to-day, though Manager Frank Robinson said he would not play Saturday. In his absence, the reslient Nationals overcame a shaky start from Tomo Ohka by getting five stellar innings from their bullpen to post a 9-3 victory over the Giants before 40,425 at SBC Park.

"That's just how our team is," said outfielder Ryan Church, who came in for Guillen and ripped a three-run double. "One guy goes down, and another guy's going to fill their role and do whatever it takes to help this team win."

The victory was the Nationals' third in four games to start their first West Coast swing, and featured a five-run eighth inning that included a three-run double from Guillen's replacement. Brad Wilkerson went 3 for 4, and the bullpen - Jon Rauch, Luis Ayala and Chad Cordero - saved Ohka. The Nationals have now won five of seven overall and are back to three games over .500 for the first time since April 20, when they were 9-6.

All that despite a frustrating outing from Ohka. The rotation, though, is about to get some help. Thursday night, Tony Armas Jr. threw his final rehabilitation start for Class AAA New Orleans, and reported to the Nationals Friday. His right groin, strained during spring training, is healthy, and he is due to start his first major league game of 2005 on Tuesday at Arizona.

"I think I can just jump in there," Armas said.

He will be jumping into a group that is the main reason Washington has been this competitive thus far. Even with the struggles of Zach Day, whose spot Armas will take in the rotation, and Ohka, who managed just four innings Friday night, the Nationals starters are among the National League leaders in innings pitched (fourth, with 173-1/3), ERA (fourth, at 3.74) and opponents' batting average (third, at .243).

Now, it is up to Armas to add to it rather than detract from it. The 27-year-old right-hander strained his groin in a spring training start against the New York Mets on March 27 and was placed on the 15-day disabled list the following day. He began the season with New Orleans, where he was scheduled to make three starts, but ended up making five, going 1-2 with a 4.38 ERA.

The numbers, though not stellar, would be an improvement on those of Ohka, who was coming off his best start of the year last Saturday, when he pitched six shutout innings against the New York Mets, an emergency start in replace of Day, who had an ear infection.

Friday, though, he did the same kinds of things that have frustrated Robinson all season - working behind hitters, walking three batters, including the opposing pitcher, and allowing a home run after being staked to a two-run lead. After he walked pitcher Noah Lowry, he worked out of a first-and-second situation in the fourth, but wasn't allowed to return for the fifth. More than half of his pitches - 36 of 71 - were balls, and he was replaced by Jon Rauch.

"He reverted back to what he's been doing before tonight," Robinson said. "You can only take so much of that. Every inning, you're one pitch away from disaster, and you got your bullpen up, your bullpen up. So if you're going to them up, you might as well get them in the game."

By the time Ruach got in the game, though, the Nationals had a 4-3 lead thanks to a four-run third, when they managed six singles against Lowry. With two out, Vinny Castilla's two-run bloop to right scored two runs, and Nick Johnson followed with an RBI single to center.

So that left Rauch (1-1) to protect the lead, and even though he walked a pair of batters in the fifth, Robinson stuck with him, letting him hit in the top of the seventh so that he could bridge the gap to Ayala and Cordero. Rauch rewarded him - kind of - by walking two men in the seventh, but getting cleanup man Moises Alou to bounce to third on what appeared to be a hanging breaking ball, ending the threat.

"Of course I'm happy to stay in there," Rauch said. "The lineup's been solid. We've been scoring runs late. "It shows a lot of determination when guys go out there to pick up their teammates. That's one thing about this clubhouse."

Rauch's three shutout innings left the Nationals to try to expand the lead, which they did in the eighth, when they forced the Giants to rip through four pitchers. Gary Bennett's double down the right-field line started things, scoring the first insurace run.

"When the double was hit," Giants Manager Felipe Alou said, "the door was already open."

Giants right-hander Jim Brower proceeded to walk pinch hitter Carlos Baerga. Lefty Scott Eyre relieved and walked Wilkerson with the bases loaded, making it 6-3.

After Jamey Carroll tried a squeeze bunt with two strikes - a move that turned into a fielder's choice on a fine play by pitcher Al Levine, who flipped the ball home for the force - Church stepped up and ripped a pitch to deep left-center. For a moment, it looked to be out. Instead, it skipped off the warning track, stayed in the park - not far enough for a home run, but plenty far enough to score three runs and keep the ailing Nationals afloat, for now.

"It's a different team this year," Wilkerson said. "We've got guys who come off the bench and do a good job. We always stay upbeat."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company