Nationals Hit Low in Sloppy Loss

Vinny Castilla
Vinny Castilla's throwing error in the fifth inning is one of several Washington miscues Monday. (Toni L. Sandys - The Washington Post)

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By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The first-place club played like a sorry, bottom-of-the-barrel outfit last night, one that had its manager's stare honed, his stride purposeful, his wrath preceding him. Over the course of a 162-game season, baseball teams invariably come across sloppy, uninspired efforts. But last night, the Washington Nationals lost a 5-4 decision to the lowly Colorado Rockies that officially made this the worst slump of what had previously been an enjoyable year.

"That is the worst game we've played all year long," Manager Frank Robinson said. "It's unacceptable, and it will not be accepted here."

The Nationals built their lead in the National League East -- one that could evaporate at any moment -- by pitching well and fielding flawlessly. Last night, their starting pitcher, Tony Armas Jr., threw two pitches in the top of the third inning and left because of dizziness and dehydration. Worse, though, their defense simply collapsed, a three-error performance that culminated in third baseman Vinny Castilla's inability to pick up a grounder in the ninth inning of a tie game. Make the play, the inning is over, and the Nationals have a chance to win in the bottom of the ninth. Instead, Eddie Garabito easily scored the winning run from second base.

"I just missed the ball," Castilla said.

Only once this year -- May 13 against the Chicago Cubs -- had the Nationals committed three errors in a game. The follies last night also included a fly ball to center fielder Preston Wilson, acquired from the Rockies in a trade last week. Wilson went back too slowly, sped up, slipped, watched the ball hit his glove and then fall to the ground. It was ruled a triple, and led to another run that shouldn't have scored.

All this is the kind of play indicative of a team that has lost nine of its last 12. Previously, the focus of the slump was the offense. But Robinson -- who watched his club make five errors over two days in losses to Milwaukee and Colorado -- said the precursors to this loss were there over the past two weeks.

"It's just it was more of the sloppy play than it has been," he said. "But we've been making little sloppy plays that cost us runs in ballgames for quite some time now. It just came to a head tonight."

Perhaps Armas's departure should have been an omen. The temperature was a muggy 87 degrees at the time of the first pitch, and after tossing his warmups in the top of the third, he didn't look right. He threw two straight balls to the opposing pitcher, Byung Hyun Kim, and catcher Brian Schneider reported to the mound. He was joined in short order by Robinson and trainer Tim Abraham.

"He said he couldn't catch his breath and he was dizzy," Robinson said of Armas, who had departed RFK by game's end.

Even with that aborted outing, there were plenty of opportunities to take advantage of the Rockies, who had lost four straight, who have baseball's worst record on the road and who committed three errors of their own. Washington tied the game at 4 in the seventh, getting one run on Ryan Church's bases-loaded sacrifice fly, then scoring the other when the ensuing throw to third from center fielder Cory Sullivan skipped past third baseman Garrett Atkins, allowing Jose Guillen to scoot home.

The crowd of 30,165 could reasonably assume, at that point, that the Nationals would somehow pull this thing out, especially because relievers Joey Eischen, Hector Carrasco, Luis Ayala and Chad Cordero all pitched effectively. But there were more gaffes to come.

In the eighth, Schneider -- who tied a career high with four hits -- led off with a single. Up walked shortstop Cristian Guzman, who hasn't had a hit since the all-star break. The mission was clear: Bunt Schneider to second, and give pinch hitter Wil Cordero and leadoff man Brad Wilkerson each a crack to drive him home with the lead run.

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