Tony Armas Jr.
Tony Armas Jr. gives up five runs and walks five Cardinals in five innings of work.

In St. Louis, Nats Singing the Blues

Nationals catcher Brian Schneider, right, and pitcher Tony Armas Jr. had to tip their caps after Jim Edmonds hit a two-run double in the second for St. Louis.
Nationals catcher Brian Schneider, right, and pitcher Tony Armas Jr. had to tip their caps after Jim Edmonds hit a two-run double in the second for St. Louis. (By Peter Newcomb -- Reuters)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 29, 2005

ST. LOUIS -- Reprinted from yesterday's late editions

The contrast is stark. With two outs and men on base, the Washington Nationals grip the bat handle like it's the neck of a Christmas goose, needing to be strangled. In the same situation, the St. Louis Cardinals calmly exhale, see the baseball, and send it into the stratosphere.

One team is going well, the other has hit the skids, and it showed Friday night at soggy Busch Stadium, where a sellout crowd of 47,383 watched the Cardinals dole out a 6-3 loss that pushed Washington to depths it hasn't experienced in this young season.

Cardinals center fielder Jim Edmonds showed the Nationals how to hit in the clutch, going 3 for 3 with a homer, two doubles and four RBI, and right-hander Matt Morris showed them how to pitch, throwing seven efficient innings that had the Nationals squeezing their bats harder and harder as each inning passed.

"I don't think this team's having a lot of fun," Nationals center fielder Brad Wilkerson said. It's no wonder. The loss gave the Nationals their first four-game losing streak of the season. In this season of baseball's return to Washington after a 33-year absence, yet another "first" pops up: First official slump, for Friday's loss was the sixth in seven games on this road trip, and it pushed the Nationals back to .500 for the first time since April 28. They slipped to fourth place in the National League East, just 1 1/2 games out of last.

"Obviously, this is becoming not a good road trip -- a bad road trip -- for us," catcher Brian Schneider said. "We have to come out the next two games and try to win one of these series."

How to do that against the Cardinals? The Nationals experienced first-hand the danger of their lineup Friday night. Retire Larry Walker, face Albert Pujols. Get by Pujols, you're left with Edmonds. The number seven hitter, Reggie Sanders, has 10 home runs, as many as any National. What happens when injured Scott Rolen returns?

Nationals right-hander Tony Armas Jr. had to surf through those waves, and he was swiftly tossed off his board and thrown into the sea. His five-inning, five-run, five-walk performance featured two key moments against Edmonds. With a man on second and two outs in the first, Armas tossed a 2-1 slider that was too high in the strike zone and became Edmonds's eighth homer of the year. After Armas walked two men in the third, Edmonds turned around a fastball, a double that short-hopped the wall in center.

"We stop him tonight," Schneider said of Edmonds, "and it's a different ballgame."

Not as easy as it sounds, especially the way Armas (1-3) is going. He has yielded 12 runs in his last 12 innings, has an ERA of 6.20 and can't command what is supposed to be his best pitch -- his slider.

"I'm having big-time problems with it," said Armas, who added that three of the four homers he has allowed this year have come on the pitch. "It's a pitch I need to be successful here."

Just as demoralizing for the Nationals, though, was that they seized a rare lead in the third -- scoring three runs on doubles from Wilkerson and Nick Johnson -- and Armas handed it directly back in the bottom of the inning by allowing Edmonds's double. The message around the clubhouse was clear: That hurt.

"To have a big inning like that, and then come back out and give it right back, it's definitely a momentum swing," Wilkerson said. "It put the momentum right back on their side. . . . If we shut them down right there, we got momentum for the rest of the game."

The Nationals, though, have no momentum. They left it back in Washington more than a week ago. When they departed on this nine-game trip, they were five games over .500. Now, they simply can't hit. They have scored three or fewer runs in nine of their last 10 games. The slump has officially become infectious. "When nobody's doing the job, you feel, 'I've got to do it,' " hitting coach Tom McCraw said. "It works in reverse. When guys are going good, you think, 'He's doing it. He's doing it.' And you think you'll do it, too. . . . It's a funk. You just have to work out of it."

Against the Cardinals, off to the second-best start in franchise history? Unlikely. In St. Louis, Rolen goes down with a sprained shoulder, and the Cardinals chug along. In Washington, second baseman Jose Vidro goes down with a high ankle sprain, and the Nationals sputter.

Two teams headed in different directions. "We're capable of doing the same thing," Nationals Manager Frank Robinson said. "But we're just not hitting right now as a team."

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