Vargas Exposed In Fourth Inning

Expos fans show their support for the Nationals. Ted Lilly shuts down the Nats in their first trip to Canada as the Blue Jays roll, 6-1, Friday night.
Expos fans show their support for the Nationals. Ted Lilly shuts down the Nats in their first trip to Canada as the Blue Jays roll, 6-1, Friday night. (Dave Sandford - Getty Images)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 21, 2005

TORONTO, May 20 -- Things that break down quickly: A 1978 Chevy Nova with only one oil change in its last 50,000 miles. Negotiations among Republican and Democratic senators trying to forge rules regarding judicial nominees. And Claudio Vargas in the fourth inning Friday night.

Vargas, a right-hander for the Washington Nationals, had the Toronto Blue Jays guessing for a bit, choosing between a fastball clocked in the mid-90s and biting off-speed pitches. But with two outs in the fourth came the meltdown -- six straight runners on base, five of whom scored, leading to an easy 6-1 victory for the Blue Jays at Rogers Center.

"I felt really good about the way he was throwing," catcher Brian Schneider said. "That's the thing with this game: You make one bad pitch, and it changes the whole game around."

The truth: Vargas made several bad pitches, but the most crucial was the 1-0 fastball he grooved to Vernon Wells, an in-the-center-of-the-platter offering Wells crushed for a two-run homer, the first of two he hit on the night. Combine Vargas's lousy inning -- from which he failed to escape -- with Wells's offense and a decent outing from starter Ted Lilly, and Toronto had all it needed to stop the Nationals' momentum.

It didn't matter that the franchise returned to Canada for the first time since September, when it played its last game as the Montreal Expos. There were a few Expos fans in the crowd of 17,465, wearing jerseys and waving flags, even chanting "Ex-pos! Ex-pos!" on their way out of the stadium. All that proved unimportant.

"I didn't look, really," Manager Frank Robinson said.

Robinson had enough to look at on the field, and not much of it was good. The Nationals squandered an opportunity to move into first place in the National League East for the first time since April 21. Washington entered the night just a half game back of Atlanta, and the Braves' loss in Boston -- their fourth straight -- provided an opening. Instead, Florida won, sliding into first, with the Nationals behind the Braves.

Standings, though, mean little in May. Production, however, means a lot, and the Nationals received very little. Lilly entered the game with a whopping 10.41 ERA overall, 18.36 in three starts in May. Yet he allowed the Nationals just one run on five hits over six innings, walking no one and striking out eight. When the Nationals used Vinny Castilla's double and Marlon Byrd's single to take a 1-0 lead in the fourth and still had runners on first and second with one out, Lilly responded by striking out Schneider and Cristian Guzman to minimize the damage.

"We're just not taking advantage of the opportunities we do have," Robinson said. "We're not getting that big hit on a consistent basis. Score one run, and have opportunities to add some to it, we don't get the next hit or two."

Indeed, even as the Nationals built a 5-2 homestand to climb five games over .500 for the first time all season, they did it with pitching, defense and more pitching. Only once in the last 38 innings -- more than four full ballgames -- have they scored more than one run in an inning, and that was a meaningless two-run homer by Nick Johnson in the ninth inning of Tuesday's 8-2 loss to Milwaukee.

Yet against Lilly and reliever Pete Walker, next to nothing.

"He gave good pitches to hit, and we could just not hit hard balls," Nationals right fielder Jose Guillen said. "Especially me. Fastball and curve right there, and I miss them."

Guillen's return to the lineup -- he sat out three games with a strained muscle in his ribcage -- was supposed to provide extra pop. Yet he went 0 for 4, striking out twice and grounding into a double play. "I [stunk]," he said.

That tender assessment could apply to Vargas's fourth inning. When he retired the first two men, he had sat down nine straight. Yet he then allowed the Blue Jays to hit for the cycle in the inning: Wells's two-run homer was followed by Eric Hinske's double, an intentional walk to Russ Adams, a two-run triple to Aaron Hill -- his first major league hit -- and an RBI single from Ken Huckaby.

"I don't feel tired," Vargas said. "But I think, sometimes, when I try to do too much, that's the problem."

The problem is that Vargas -- whose ERA is up to 9.00 -- could be out of a job. Tomo Ohka, who has been relieving, starts again Sunday, and if he pitches well, he could return to the rotation.

"It's a tough enough night without trying to decide that," Robinson said. "We'll see."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company