By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 18, 2005
MILWAUKEE, July 17 -- It might now be time for some changes, though look down the bench, and there are precious few palatable choices. Yet after the Washington Nationals lost for the eighth time in 11 games Sunday -- a 5-3 decision to the Milwaukee Brewers in which they were baffled by former teammate Tomo Ohka -- Manager Frank Robinson understood that, offensively, his team is in a deep funk, and it might finally be time to bench shortstop Cristian Guzman.
"You first have to think about what options you have, and if you can do anything, you look at that," Robinson said. "But I don't see where we can go get somebody that's going to step in and give us some offense. So we're going to have to kind of ride this out. . . . There's maybe one, maybe two spots you could possibly insert somebody. One, maybe."
The most obvious is shortstop. Guzman, signed to a four-year, $16.8 million deal in the offseason, has helped solidify the Nationals defensively, but has been the worst offensive regular in the majors. Sunday, Guzman went 0 for 2, flying out and grounding into a double play before he was lifted for a pinch hitter. He is 0 for 12 in four games since returning from a strained hamstring, and his average is down to .192, the lowest of any major league regular.
Asked whether Guzman would be benched in favor of Jamey Carroll, a utility player hitting .247, Robinson, usually direct, was evasive.
"It's something I'm not going to comment on at this moment," he said. "It's not that I haven't thought about different things over the course of the last two weeks, but right now, I'd rather not comment on something like that."
The offensive problems that caused the Nationals to lose three of four to the middling Brewers aren't Guzman's alone. Indeed, they have filtered through the lineup. Sunday's five-hit performance means the team is hitting .209 since the all-star break, and several individual players are slumping. Even the first four hitters in the Nationals' lineup Sunday -- Brad Wilkerson, Jose Vidro, Jose Guillen and Preston Wilson -- finished the Milwaukee series 14 for 64, just a .219 average.
"You got key guys that aren't hitting, that makes it easier on that pitcher out there to do what he has to do," hitting coach Tom McCraw said during the series. "If you got four or five guys on a roll, you're not lifting the burden on that pitcher. He's got to work. But when you got four guys not hitting, he's got some breathers in there. He's got some times where he can just kind of relax. That's what you're trying to avoid."
It is impossible, though, to avoid the problem at the bottom of the batting order, where it is now as if the Nationals employ two pitchers. Guzman's struggles were easier to ignore when the team was playing well. When he strained his left hamstring June 30, Guzman was hitting just .201, but the Nationals were 47-31 and leading the National League East by 4 1/2 games. Now, the lead is 1 1/2 games over the Atlanta Braves, who have lost four of six.
"You look up, and this division will be just the way it was a month-and-a-half ago, everybody just standing there staring you in the eye," Robinson said. "And if you happen to stumble, one or two or three [teams] can go by you."
The Nationals know that their offensive production Sunday -- they managed a solo homer by Guillen in the first and a two-run double by Brian Schneider in the seventh -- isn't going to be enough. Vidro didn't help starter Ryan Drese by booting a two-out grounder in the first, a play that led to Geoff Jenkins's two-run double that gave Ohka the lead, one he never relinquished. Ohka, traded to the Brewers on June 10 for second baseman Junior Spivey, threw seven innings of four-hit ball to improve to 2-1 with Milwaukee.
"I like those guys," Ohka said. "I don't hate them."
Those guys, though, hate what they're going through. The Nationals have dropped three series in a row for the first time all year, all to teams near .500 -- the New York Mets, Philadelphia and Milwaukee.
"This team is going through a funk right now," Vidro said. "We've got to find a way to get out of it."
Perhaps through changes. Guzman is 2 for his last 35. Entering Sunday's game, he was the only major league regular hitting below .215. There is no way to spin the numbers to make them look better. His on-base percentage (.229) is the worst in baseball. His slugging percentage (.278) is the worst in the National League. He is hitting .142 with runners on base, .100 with runners in scoring position.
So when he was lifted for Carlos Baerga in the seventh, with the Nationals trailing 5-3 and Schneider on second, it seemed a no-brainer. Guzman, though, said the possibility of being replaced bothers him.
"When you got so many times somebody got to pinch-hit for you, right away, the first at-bat you go [out there], you think you have to get a base hit," he said. "And then you don't get a base hit, and you know somebody's going to pinch-hit for you."
Vidro expressed confidence that Guzman would hit better the rest of the way. Guzman, too, said he felt he could return to the form from his first six seasons in the majors, when he hit .266.
How would he react if he was benched?
"Everybody knows I'm an everyday player," Guzman said. "I know I'm not a bench player."