For Nationals, Rally Takes a Bad Turn

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 29, 2005

ST. LOUIS, May 28 -- Vinny Castilla walked slowly across the infield, batting helmet tossed aside, cursing at the ground below his feet. There is a sense, in order to break a slump, tiny breaks have to develop, just the kind that were starting to happen for the Washington Nationals in the top of the sixth Saturday night. Two broken-bat singles. A dribbler down the third base line. A bases-loaded walk.

Moments before, Castilla had come up in that situation, the bases still juiced, the Nationals down by two, the sense that one sizzling line drive might jar the entire team out of this major malaise.

Yet Castilla swung at the first pitch from St. Louis Cardinals right-hander Jeff Suppan. The result, from there, is predictable, considering how the Nationals are going. He bounced it to shortstop David Eckstein, who tossed it to second baseman Mark Grudzielanek, who avoided a charging Nick Johnson and completed the double play that ended the inning, the rally, and any real hope the Nationals had in a 3-1 loss to the Cardinals in front of a sellout crowd of 49,123 at Busch Stadium.

Castilla's dejection after crossing first base mirrored that of the Nationals on this fruitless road trip.

"Of course, it's frustrating," he said.

The loss was the Nationals' fifth in a row and seventh in eight games, dropping them below .500 for the first time since April 11, when they were 3-4. They went down all too easily again, managing just four hits against Suppan and two relievers, failing once again to give any hope to their own starter, right-hander Esteban Loaiza. Loaiza allowed third-inning homers to Jim Edmonds and Yadier Molina, but nothing else in six innings, and left with his typical outcome: a solid job, and a loss.

Don't give Suppan too much credit, the Nationals said. Considering the way the Nationals are going offensively, Charlie Brown might be able to throw seven innings of one-run ball against them.

"Offensively, we're just not competing," Manager Frank Robinson said. "Whoever goes out there, they look like Cy Young. After a while, you have to put the blame where the blame is. And our offensive people are just not competing against whoever they send out there, whoever's on the mound. . . .

"They all get the same results against us. They all can't be that good."

Suppan hadn't been that good in his last two starts, allowing 17 hits and 16 runs. But he carried a no-hitter through five innings against the punchless Nationals, who these days are able to post just one threat per game -- if that.

So it came in the sixth, when Brad Wilkerson finally broke up the no-hitter with one out, a soft bouncer up the middle. Marlon Byrd followed by shattering his bat on a grounder that Eckstein had to range to his right to field. He bobbled the ball, and had no play, an infield single for Byrd.

That brought up Jose Guillen, the slugging right fielder who has felt a personal burden to come through with men on base. Guillen hit a roller down the dirt portion of the third base line, one that somehow stayed fair. St. Louis pitching coach Dave Duncan visited Suppan on the mound.

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