Nats Shrug Off Injuries, Club Blue Jays

Josh Towers
Blue Jays starter Josh Towers walks back to the mound dejectedly as he talks the loss in the Nationals' 9-2 win over Toronto. (Mike Cassese - Reuters)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 23, 2005

TORONTO, May 22 -- The day started with bad news: Brad Wilkerson's strained right forearm, which has bothered him for weeks, might keep him out of the lineup for the final seven games of this road trip. It didn't get any better by the third inning, when Vinny Castilla departed with soreness in his left knee.

When Jeffrey Hammonds came out in the fifth with a pulled right hamstring, who remained? The Nationals finished Sunday's game against the Toronto Blue Jays with Carlos Baerga at third and Tony Blanco in left, a defensive alignment that might have trouble in a beer-league softball game.

So, naturally, the Nationals blew out the Blue Jays, because that's who they are. Too many injuries? A mismatch on the mound? It doesn't matter. The Nationals took a 9-2 victory at Rogers Center anyway. Much-maligned right-hander Tomo Ohka provided stability with an excellent eight-inning performance, and the previously dormant Nationals scored more runs than they had in their previous five games combined.

"We've got nine guys on the disabled list," Baerga said. "We know we have to work hard to stay ready. Anybody has to be ready at any time."

Especially on this team, where an injury seems to happen with each breath. The big blows Sunday came from Jose Guillen, who belied his .143 average with runners in scoring position by blasting a three-run double that broke a tie in the fifth, and Blanco, whose first major league home run in the seventh was also the Nationals' first three-run homer of the year.

"It didn't look good starting the day, and it certainly didn't look good when Castilla went out of the lineup," Manager Frank Robinson said. "But we got it done, and that's what we've been doing most of the year -- getting it done."

If the Nationals -- who avoided their first three-game sweep of the year -- expect to keep getting it done against the lowly Cincinnati Reds, they will have to do so with an even more drastically altered lineup. Wilkerson said the strained tendon in his forearm worsened in recent days, and it showed at the plate, where he was 2 for his last 17, dropping his average to .281.

"Things are getting worse and worse, and things are starting to move around," he said. "I might not be in for another week or so. I just want to make sure everything's right before I get back out there and try to push it."

That left Marlon Byrd in center field and leading off. When the Nationals began the game by going down in order against Toronto's Josh Towers (5-2), it marked the 10th straight game the team had failed to send more than three hitters to the plate in the first -- a symptom of their sluggish offense. Wilkerson's slump emphasized that.

"If your engine's not operating correctly," Robinson said, "how does that affect your car?"

The Nationals dropped their transmission when Castilla came out in the third, aggravating his left knee on the artificial turf. He is listed as day-to-day, but team physician Bruce Thomas expects Castilla to be ready some time during the Cincinnati series. Hammonds's injury, though, is more serious, and he will be placed on the disabled list Monday. Infielder Brendan Harris was recalled from Class AAA New Orleans on Sunday night and will meet the team in Cincinnati.

"It don't matter," Hammonds said. "We keep winning."

They won Sunday because Ohka (3-3) allowed only Shea Hillenbrand's two-run homer in the fourth, the only damage in his eight innings of five-hit, one-walk ball. His velocity and his control were both improved.

"And when he struggled a little bit with his fastball command, he had his slider and his curveball," catcher Gary Bennett said. "And the innings he breezed through, he had all his pitches."

He needed them, just as the Nationals needed about all their players. Perhaps the day's best moment came in the eighth, when Blanco came up with runners on first and second. He launched a 1-1 pitch from reliever Vinnie Chulk deep over the fence in center.

When he returned to the dugout, there were smiles all around -- and not just because of the 8-2 lead. On the Thursday night flight to Toronto, Guillen and Castilla made a deal with Blanco: Hit a home run by your 50th at-bat, and Guillen would provide new diamond earrings to replace the faux versions Blanco has worn to this point, Castilla would buy a Rolex.

This shot came in Blanco's 22nd time up in the majors. By the time he left the clubhouse, he already had a $3,000 check from Guillen.

"I'm going to get a gift tomorrow," Blanco said.

Considering all the injuries, the Nationals' gift may have arrived Sunday: a win.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company