By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 22, 2005
The slump has developed so much momentum it seems nothing can stop it. The Washington Nationals vowed to make last night their fresh start, to play with renewed optimism. They tinkered with the lineup and enjoyed a solid start from a hot pitcher.
It didn't matter.
In a 3-2 loss to the Houston Astros in front of 36,840 at RFK Stadium, the Nationals' slump only gained steam. The Nationals continued to make costly mental mistakes and squander most of the few scoring opportunities they managed to create.
As a result, they lost for the 11th time in 15 games and fell into a tie for first place in the National League East with the idle Atlanta Braves. It's the first time since June 5 the Nationals haven't been alone in first place.
"We know the reasons why we're doing it," Manager Frank Robinson said. "We're not getting big base hits. We're making a few mental mistakes, and it's costing us. It's putting a lot of pressure on the pitching staff to be perfect, and they can't be perfect."
Esteban Loaiza (6-6) strived desperately for that lofty standard last night, only to walk off the field after the seventh inning shaking his head.
He came into the game with a 4-0 record and an ERA under 3.00 in his last five starts, and he pitched fairly well again, giving up three runs -- two earned -- and 11 hits. But he became the latest Nats starter victimized by poor run support and defensive mistakes.
The Astros' fifth inning typified Loaiza's night. He gave up singles to Adam Everett and Brad Ausmus. Astros pitcher Roy Oswalt came up next, and he slapped a mediocre bunt that Wilkerson fielded and threw to third, hoping to create a forceout. It appeared to be an easy end to the Astros' threat.
Instead, both third baseman Carlos Baerga and shortstop Jamey Carroll ran to field the throw at third. Baerga reached for it and dropped it, allowing Everett to sprint home for the game's first run.
"It was a misjudgment of Baerga and Carroll at third," Loaiza said. "Baerga's not playing third base too much, maybe he was mixed up on the signs. That's how things have been going."
Said Wilkerson: "Whatever happened, it was a miscue. The play was there, and we just didn't execute with the pitcher at bat."
Oswalt, improbably, would factor into the Astros' offense again. Shortly following a sixth-inning home run from Mike Lamb, Oswalt smacked a single to score Everett and give Houston a 3-0 lead.
A month ago, that margin would have seemed trivial to the Nationals, but last night it might as well have been double digits. They threatened Oswalt (13-8) occasionally, but couldn't land a decisive blow. They loaded the bases in the second inning, and Loaiza struck out. They put runners on first and second in the sixth inning, and Jose Guillen hit into a double play. They started the seventh with a single from Preston Wilson only to have Wilkerson hit into a double play.
The come-from-behind reputation the Nationals earned during the first half of the season seemed little more than a distant memory. Wilson finally ignited the offense in the ninth inning with a two-run homer off Brad Lidge, but it only provided false hope. In the next five pitches, Wilkerson grounded to second and Brian Schneider flied out to right field. Just seconds after the inning ended, Nationals players funneled into the dugout, many of them with scowls.
Nobody, though, looked more disappointed than Robinson. He hoped his pregame strategy -- to bat Wilkerson sixth and Schneider seventh -- would spark the bottom of the Washington order, but it only resulted in more frustration. The Nationals have now scored four runs or less in nine of their past 10 games. They've lost four of their past five series openers and six of their past eight games at home.
After the game, a downtrodden Robinson confronted the reality of a slump that has robbed his team of its identity. Asked if he felt the Nationals had lost their confidence to come from behind, Robinson hardly hesitated.
"Sure," he said, "because we're not winning those anymore."