Nats Shorn Again in Canada

After forcing out Toronto's Aaron Hill, Jamey Carroll makes the relay to complete a double play. Washington's hitting, however, was not as smooth.
After forcing out Toronto's Aaron Hill, Jamey Carroll makes the relay to complete a double play. Washington's hitting, however, was not as smooth. (By Mike Cassese -- Reuters)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 22, 2005

TORONTO, May 21 -- Prior to Saturday's game at Rogers Centre, Nationals outfielder Jose Guillen burst into Manager Frank Robinson's office, holding a plastic bag full of what he hoped was the solution. He handed the bag to Robinson. "I think your shortstop's going to start hitting," Guillen said.

Robinson warily opened the bag and peered in. His eyes widened. There, at the bottom, sat Cristian Guzman's jet-black hair. All of it. At times this year, the shortstop has worn braids. At others, he has puffed it into an Afro.

But Guzman and the Nationals are in a downward spiral offensively, one that continued in Saturday's punchless 7-0 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays. The theory: Try anything to turn it around. Guzman's neatly cropped pate made little difference, for him or the team. He went 0 for 3 and now has just one hit in a week, dropping his average below .200 again, a symbol of the stagnant Nationals' offense, which managed all of four hits against Toronto's Roy Halladay and a pair of relievers.

"I just didn't want no more hair," Guzman said afterward, claiming the new 'do wasn't in hopes he would do more. Yet he is now hitless in his last 19 at-bats. The Mendoza Line? How about the Guzman Line, for he is at .197. But that focuses the struggles too much on one player, and this slump appears to have crept its way through the entire lineup.

Can that really happen? "It can," Robinson said, "and it has."

Once the Nationals fell behind by four runs after two innings, they hardly made a peep, failing to put a runner on base after the third. The last 19 Nationals went down in order.

"A lot of times, when you're struggling, you start pressing," center fielder Brad Wilkerson said. "That's what we're doing right now."

The Nationals arrived in Toronto flying high, threatening to move into first place in the National League East, but they reached that position thanks to outstanding pitching that overshadowed a lineup that is now impotent. The Nationals have scored just seven runs in their last five games, putting them in danger of being swept in a three-game series for the first time all season.

This is why, even when the team is winning, Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden isn't shy about what he believes is needed to make this team a contender. "We need a big bat," Bowden reiterated this week. The Nationals have shown interest in a slew of names, from Texas's Alfonso Soriano, who would be moved from second to the outfield, to Toronto's Vernon Wells to Oakland's Eric Byrnes, Colorado's Preston Wilson and Cincinnati's Wily Mo Peña.

Yet given the Nationals' injury-riddled roster, Bowden has very little room to maneuver. Second-year outfielder Terrmel Sledge could have served as prime trade bait, but he is almost certainly lost for the year because of a pulled hamstring. So the team, as currently constructed, will come across times like these, hitting .174 (24 for 149) over the last five games.

"If we get that key hit, then everything just snowballs," right fielder Ryan Church said. "I don't know if everybody's just sitting back and waiting for it to happen. . . . All it takes is a darn blooper."

Naturally, there are two sides to any equation, and anytime Halladay (7-2) takes the mound, he's a significant factor. He completely silenced the Nationals, allowing four hits in seven innings, a model of efficiency that offered a distinct contrast to Washington's Tony Armas Jr.

Armas, making just his third start, was pecked into submission by the Blue Jays, allowing two runs in the first, two in the second, two in the sixth and another in the seventh. Five of the 10 hits he gave up went for extra bases, including Eric Hinske's fifth homer of the year.

"You make it even tougher when you give Halladay four runs," Armas said.

Indeed, the 2003 American League Cy Young winner found his quick-working rhythm and stuck with it. When the Nationals put runners on first and second with two outs in the second, he struck out Brian Schneider. When they loaded the bases with two outs in the third, he got Vinny Castilla to ground into a fielder's choice. As a team, Wilkerson said, the Nationals aren't being patient.

"We're just up there swinging at a lot of pitches early in the count," Wilkerson said. "We're down four runs, and I think we swing at the first pitch three or four innings in a row. That's not good baseball."

Bald or coiffed, bearded or clean-shaven, it doesn't matter. Sunday, the Nationals' search for an offensive solution continues.

"What can you do?" Guillen asked.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company