Scores of Trouble for Offense-Poor Nats

Guzman, Robinson
Washington Nationals shortstop Cristian Guzman walks to the dugout near Nationals manager Frank Robinson, after striking out in the eighth inning, Sunday. Guzman along with first baseman Nick Johnson were there only two regular players to start for the Nationals in their 3-0 loss to San Diego. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais - AP)

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By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 8, 2005

Saturday evening they tried a meeting, one that lasted nearly two hours. Yesterday afternoon, they made wholesale lineup changes, playing backups at every position but two. None of it helped. So behind the whisper of the Washington Nationals' offense -- just five hits in a 3-0 loss to right-hander Jake Peavy and the San Diego Padres yesterday afternoon at RFK Stadium -- the signs of a clubhouse coming apart, and a season slipping away, were everywhere. Changes, it seems, are afoot.

"It's getting [to be] that time," General Manager Jim Bowden said. "You can't watch these games too much longer, so let's try something different. It's like sailing a boat. Sometimes, you think you're going the right way. But if your team's losing, at some point, you might as well tack and go the other way and see if that'll work."

Nothing is working for the Nationals, who ended a crucial homestand by allowing the Padres a three-game sweep, and heard a smattering of boos from the announced crowd of 36,440 when little-used outfielder Matt Cepicky popped out to end the game against Peavy, who made the Nationals' lineup of rookies and substitutes look foolish at times.

After the game, Cepicky was replaced on the roster by Class AAA outfielder Brandon Watson. When the Nationals arrive in Houston to begin an important three-game series against the Astros, Watson -- who has never played in a big league game -- will not only be in uniform, but likely will be leading off and playing right field for a team that, even with all the turmoil, is still very much in the race for the playoffs.

"We're losing ballgames that we should be winning," Manager Frank Robinson said. "And pretty soon it will be too late."

All this comes on the eve of Washington's longest road trip of the year, a 13-game voyage through Houston, Colorado, Philadelphia and New York. And it comes with an undercurrent of upheaval in the clubhouse, which was still dealing with the fallout from Saturday's meeting -- which lasted 1 hour 44 minutes -- and was meant to, as Robinson said, "clear the air."

There was, however, confrontation, and two club sources said there appears to be a rift between center fielder Brad Wilkerson and right fielder Jose Guillen. At one point in the meeting -- during which players were invited to vent any issues they had -- a source said that second baseman Jose Vidro jumped up and told Wilkerson to stop talking about Guillen, who frequently doesn't stretch or take batting practice with his teammates. Wilkerson, by contrast, is a constant during pregame workouts.

Neither Guillen -- who is out of the lineup with a bad shoulder -- nor Wilkerson would address any details of the meeting yesterday. But asked if the atmosphere in the clubhouse had changed during the last five weeks, in which the Nationals have gone 8-22, Guillen said, "Definitely," and Wilkerson agreed.

"There's a lot of things going on," Wilkerson said. "I think a lot of things were put out in the meeting that needed to be put out, and whether we can correct them or not, I think it's up to the individual. This is a good team, but I think there's a lot of things we need to learn as a team, maturity-wise.

"I've said all along it's easy to look like you're mature, look like the chemistry's going well, when you're winning. But when you're losing, you kind of get the test of time, see how strong you are as a team -- and see if you are really a team. And I think this team's been struggling with that."

Neither Wilkerson nor Guillen has been particularly productive lately, and both are hurt. Wilkerson, who has battled a bad forearm and hand much of the year and a sore shoulder for more than a month, said he is feeling better, but is hitting .211 in August. Guillen likely will miss the entire Houston series, and perhaps the one in Colorado, because of a potential tear in his left rotator cuff. He is hitting .154 this month.

Without those two players, the Nationals' offense -- which is last in the National League in batting average (.252), slugging percentage (.383), runs scored (3.9 per game) and home runs (77) -- has little hope of coming around. Both players said yesterday they want to make sure chemistry doesn't prevent them from finishing the season strong.

"I had enough in my past," Guillen said. "I just learn from those things. Sometimes, if you say something, a lot of players don't take it the right way. I just want to play the game and help my team to win and come ready every day."

The Nationals have not looked ready to play for some time, and they have now exhausted virtually every avenue available for inspiration. Bowden met with the team privately during a July series in Florida. Robinson has tried various forms of meetings, culminating in the free-for-all therapy session on Saturday.

"I believe in them," Bowden said. "I think they can do it, but you got to do it. I'm sick of talking the talk. How many meetings can you have? . . . Let's walk the walk and talk the talk."

Yesterday, neither the talking nor walking amounted to much against Peavy (10-4), who tossed his second shutout of the season, allowing five harmless singles, walking two and striking out 10 against a lineup that featured the regular shortstop, Cristian Guzman, and the regular first baseman, Nick Johnson, but subs everywhere else.

So tonight, the Nationals head to Houston, where so much could be sorted out. Win three, and they improbably lead the wild-card race. Lose three, and they might be done.

"I think it's a big series for this ballclub to figure out what kind of club it's going to be," Wilkerson said. "Is it going to be a club that's going to toughen up and rise to the challenge, or is it going to be a club that's going to collapse? It just doesn't seem in very good spirits right now."


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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