Nats Skid Into the Break
Monday, July 11, 2005
PHILADELPHIA, July 10 -- The first half of the Washington Nationals' season ended in the shadows Sunday evening, when a pinch hitter for the Philadelphia Phillies named Ramon Martinez bounced a ball just out of the reach of third baseman Vinny Castilla into the grass in left field. As David Bell scored from third, the run that gave the Phillies a 5-4, 12th-inning victory, the Phillies headed toward first base to surround Martinez, and the Nationals all but dragged themselves off the field, into the clubhouse and to the all-star break.
The last National to leave the field at Citizens Bank Park, as what remained of the crowd of 34,124 danced to the beat of the old disco hit "That's the Way (I Like It)," was right fielder Jose Guillen. He has been through much in this first half, indeed, even on a long Sunday afternoon. He hit a two-run homer in the third inning, his 18th of the season. He fouled a ball off his left foot in the sixth, crouched on the ground for several minutes in pain, yet remained in the game.
And afterward, as he strode past the celebrating Phillies toward the dugout, he thought about the Nationals' run to first place in the National League East, and the reasons the team lost five of its last seven before the all-star break. Yes, Washington unexpectedly went 52-36 to take a 2 1/2 game lead over the Atlanta Braves. But nagging injuries that kept first baseman Nick Johnson, outfielder Ryan Church and shortstop Cristian Guzman out of the lineup for much of the last two weeks severely limited the team's ability to finish strong.
Guillen had a message for them.
"We have some key players that just keep getting hurt, like Churchy and Nick and Guzzy," Guillen said. "Without those three guys, I don't think the team's looking the same.
"You know we need Nick. We need some of those guys to learn how to play in pain. They need to step it up and have to understand, right now, in the second half, there's no baby-sitting anyone."
As Guillen spoke, teammate Brad Wilkerson -- who has played almost the entire first half with a bad right forearm and the last two-and-a-half weeks with a sore left shoulder -- dressed behind him. Castilla, the third baseman, has had a bad knee since spring training. Yet Guillen's message was that those two, and others, were out there in 85-degree heat, the day before the break, playing.
"Vinny has a knee that's all messed up, and he's  years old," Guillen said. "I've been playing through some really tough injuries. Just play through it. Some guys cannot play through it, and we just got to make sure those guys get ready for the second half. I think we're going to need them. I hope they get this message."
The message the Nationals sent, through their body language, was that the break is badly needed.
"It's been a struggle," Wilkerson said, "but I think the break's coming at the right time for us."
Washington was drastically short of manpower Sunday. Aside from Church and Johnson, who are on the disabled list, and Guzman, who hasn't played since June 30 because of a strained hamstring, reliever Luis Ayala flew to Mexico to be with his ailing grandmother, catcher Brian Schneider came out after five innings because he was ill, second baseman Junior Spivey was unavailable after breaking a bone in his right forearm Saturday and infielder Tony Blanco has been suffering from vertigo-like symptoms because of a sinus infection, though he did pinch-run Sunday.
"I'm not going to use that as an excuse," Manager Frank Robinson said.
Even with all that, the Nationals had a chance to win the game. On the strength of Wilkerson's two-out, RBI single in the third, Guillen's homer in the fourth and Jamey Carroll's scamper home on a wild pitch in the seventh -- not to mention six innings of two-run ball from starter Esteban Loaiza -- they built a 4-2 lead.
Yet as badly as the Nationals' offense has been hampered by injuries, the pitching staff -- particularly the bullpen -- is just plain gassed. Without Ayala around, Robinson asked Gary Majewski to pitch two scoreless innings. He couldn't do it, allowing a game-tying, two-run homer to Ryan Howard in the eighth.
Closer Chad Cordero and Sun Woo Kim prevented the Phillies from winning it before extra innings. But Kim finally broke, allowing singles to Bell and Todd Pratt with one out in the 12th to put runners on the corners. After retiring pinch hitter Jason Michaels on a shallow fly to left, Kim walked Jimmy Rollins intentionally to load the bases with two down. Martinez then sent a grounder through the left side and the Phillies won in their last at-bat for the second straight day.
"Just my bad," Kim said.
Robinson, though, didn't want his team to think that way. Behind closed doors, he reminded his players of what they had accomplished in their first 88 games. Now, there are 74 to go. Just as Guillen's words came as a warning, Robinson issued one of his own.
"If we thought it was tough the first half, it's going to be even tougher the second half," Robinson said. "Everybody's going to be gunning at us and coming at us, and we're really going to have to give everything we have.
"It's going to be a dogfight."