Nationals Add Depth, Maintain Grit

By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The Nationals should be falling apart. They have every excuse. But so far they're not. In fact, against logic, they're thriving. In time Washington's new team may succumb to its wave of injuries. For now, however, it appears that two factors have kept the Nats afloat, winning consecutive series against the Dodgers and Giants to stay above .500 and in third place in the toughest division in baseball. Few may have seen the Nats' after-midnight deeds on the West Coast, but it's been gritty stuff.

A dozen new players, added over the offseason by General Manager Jim Bowden, have brought depth to one of baseball's thinnest organizations. Every bit of it has been needed already. That influx of talent has meshed with the morale and resiliency established by Manager Frank Robinson over three seasons of hardship in Montreal. That's been invaluable, too.

"I was scared about our [lack of] depth when I took the job and I'm still scared," Bowden said yesterday. He recognized that the team needed competent professionals in quantity as much as it needed more stars. "Three or four players on the disabled list is a lot. Six is ridiculous. But we've got 10 guys on the DL right now. That is off the charts."

As soon as the calendar turned to May, every baseball demon has dogged the Nats. On May 1, Joey Eischen, the team's only left-handed pitcher, broke his arm. Then, last week, the Nats had their regular No. 3, 4 and 5 hitters -- the entire heart of the order -- leave games with injuries in the span of five days. Isn't that some kind of macabre record?

First, left fielder Terrmel Sledge tore his hamstring and, like Eischen, will be gone for months. Then Jose Vidro, the team's best player, sprained his ankle. How soon will he be back? "I don't know," said Bowden, "but crutches are not a good sign." Finally, last Friday cleanup hitter Jose Guillen, who seems to wear a target on his ribs, was drilled by his fourth fastball in a week -- all in almost the same spot on or near his left elbow. Will somebody protect this guy, please?

That's not all. Besides losing key players, the Nats' current road trip began with a flight that didn't arrive in California until 8:30 a.m. body-clock time. Talk about foreshadowing. Next came clubhouse controversy between pitcher Zach Day and Robinson, a slump by leadoff hitter Brad Wilkerson (1 for 25) and finally a 13-inning game on Sunday that was lost because of two poor calls by umpires.

"If you get beat, you get beat. But you don't like for it to be taken away from you," fumed Robinson on Sunday.

Yet, in the face of all this, the Nationals have not disintegrated. Just the opposite, in fact. Because the Nats have continued to stage come-from-behind rallies and winning with patchwork lineups, few have noticed the team's plight. But the club is winning with players such as rookie Ryan Church, who had three-run, game-clinching doubles in back-to-back wins in Frisco, and utility infielder Jamey Carroll, who had seven hits in two games last weekend. Yes, that's Jeffrey Hammonds, now on his sixth team, plus old pinch hitter Carlos Baerga and backup catcher Gary Bennett, all Bowden winter grabs, who've been contributing here and there.

Even Endy Chavez, back from the minors by dire necessity, drew two walks in one game -- normally a fortnight's total for him.

On Opening Day, Washington's middle-relief corps included B.J. Tucker, Eischen and Antonio Osuna, all solid veterans. They've been erased and replaced by Gary "Tex" Majewski, oft-discarded Hector Carrasco and 6-foot-11 Jon Rauch, whose body tattoos indicate that he may have seen "From Dusk Till Dawn" at least once too often. This trio, with a 2.10 ERA in 30 innings, has saved a road trip that has already seen two starters knocked out by the fourth inning, plus that 13-inning marathon.

So far, Bowden may deserve the most praise. He hit the jackpot when he acquired well-known players Vinny Castilla, Jose Guillen, Esteban Loaiza and Cristian Guzman, all of whom have been adequate to exceptional. Castilla and Guillen are on pace for 100 RBI. Loaiza has matched staff ace Livan Hernandez in every statistic except wins; poor run support has held him back. After a shaky April, Guzman has steadied at shortstop and started to hit at his normal level.

However, eight other Bowden acquisitions have played for the Nats so far this year, including Bennett, who has given starting catcher Brian Schneider rest against tough southpaws, and Carrasco (0.00 ERA in 10 games).

"I don't think I've ever had a team with 10 players on the DL at once, although '93 was rough in Cincinnati," Bowden said. "This team gives me some of the same feelings as the '99 Reds. We won 96 games that year. You can't measure character, passion and heart."

Executives on many teams prattle about such intangibles, but the Nationals, hardened to adversity in their years under Robinson in Montreal and toughened by the addition of Bowden's veterans, may actually have some rare qualities.

On Saturday, the day after he was hit on the elbow and left the game bent over in pain, Guillen pinch-hit with the bases loaded and singled in two runs. He stayed in the game, made a sprinting catch in right field, got another hit and, finally, advanced the game-tying run from second to third base with a groundout in the ninth inning. So much for Guillen taking a couple of days off to heal. On Sunday, he hit a home run in his first at bat and drove in another run later.

"Guillen is becoming this team's leader," said Robinson.

If so, it may be because Robinson sees some of his own competitive fire in Guillen, who has played for seven teams in seven years and clashed with anyone who prevented him from playing every day -- like, for example, managers. Yet, on the bench last week at Dodger Stadium, Guillen pounced on the 69-year-old Robinson before the game and each playfully punched the other in the stomach a dozen times. Guillen, hitting .311 and on a 40-home-run pace, claims Robinson has become a kind of baseball father to him while the manager has said that if pitchers keep throwing at Guillen with impunity, there will be fireworks.

Some of the Nationals' early success is measurable. After finishing third to last in runs last year, the team is seventh in the majors in slugging. With a fifth of the season in the books, that's not all a spring fluke. On the other hand, helped by spacious RFK Stadium, the Nats' pitching staff -- which allowed 191 home runs last season -- has allowed the fewest gopher balls of any pitching staff in baseball. They're on pace for giving up only 94.

So far, the Nats are far more about competitive qualities that cannot be measured. Out of necessity, they try to survive one game at a time and they hope that, slowly, their wounded will return. Tonight, Tony Armas Jr., who was expected to be the team's number two starter in spring training, will finally come off the DL and start his first game of the season.

"We can't worry about coulda, woulda, shoulda these days," said Bowden yesterday, working the phones, looking for that left-handed pitcher or right-handed hitter that he knows his team still badly needs. "Right now, we just worry about 'is.' "

© 2005 The Washington Post Company