Slump Fades Into Thin Air

Cristian Guzman
Nationals' shortstop Cristian Guzman, right, steps away from second base after forcing out Colorado Rockies' Aaron Miles, and throws to first base to complete a double play. (David Zalubowski - AP)

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By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 14, 2005

DENVER, Aug. 13 -- Right from the Colorado Rockies' first batter Saturday night, it felt like so many of the previous 999 games in the history of Coors Field. Larry Bigbie, the Rockies' leadoff hitter, singled up the middle off Washington Nationals right-hander Tony Armas Jr. The next batter, Aaron Miles, sent a single to right, and the 31,447 on hand on a cool summer evening could almost sense Mike Gallego, the Rockies' third base coach, loosening up his arm to wave home runner after runner.

But in this strange summer for the Washington Nationals came more odd developments. Not only did Bigbie and Miles fail to score, but the two runners the Rockies put on base in the second were stranded as well. They loaded the bases in the third, but again, no runs. Keep going. Nineteen Rockies reached base against Armas and three relievers. None of them scored, and the Nationals took a key 8-0 victory that had them feeling as confident as they have in weeks.

"We had a shutout?" Manager Frank Robinson asked, only partly in jest, afterward.

The important part for the Nationals wasn't, in fact, the shutout, or the bizarre manner in which it arrived. Rather, it was that they have now won two straight games for just the second time since July 3, and, with the last of three games here on Sunday, they have clinched just their second series victory in their last 11. First baseman Nick Johnson went 3 for 5 with two run-scoring doubles and right fielder Jose Guillen went 2 for 4 with a pair of RBI as well, the key players in a 13-hit attack. Thus, the Nationals pulled within two games of Houston in the race for the National League's wild-card playoff berth.

Finally, some nice things to discuss during the postgame meal in the clubhouse.

"Most things we're doing now [are] nice," Robinson said. "We haven't done too many nice things the second half of the season, so it's nice to see things happening the right way for us. We have to just keep putting it together, keep winning. We just have to look at each game like we have to win the game."

That seems to be particularly true here, where the Nationals are facing the worst team in the league, and where they will send right-hander John Patterson to the mound Sunday to try to engineer a sweep. But as they left the park Saturday night following the 1,000th game in Coors Field history, there was much talk about the first shutout of the Rockies at this park this season, just the seventh in team history.

"I wouldn't say it was bad hitting with runners in scoring position," said Washington left-hander Joey Eischen, who pitched the ninth. "I'd say it was great situational pitching."

Eischen smiled, for he knew what the Rockies would say about that.

"Just about everybody in the lineup had an opportunity," Colorado Manager Clint Hurdle said. "Sometimes, the game's harder to play than other times. Right now, it's hard on us offensively."

The Rockies rapped out 13 hits, 12 of them singles, drew five walks and had one man reach on an error. One more hit, and they could have joined an elite club. Only twice in major league history has a team collected 14 hits and been shut out -- Sept. 14, 1913, when the New York Giants lost 7-0 to Chicago, and July 10, 1928, when the old Washington Senators shut out the Cleveland Indians, 9-0.

"I had to make the pitches at the right moments," said Armas, who improved to 7-5 and won for just the second time on the road.

Armas and relievers Mike Stanton, Hector Carrasco and Eischen generally made the right pitches at the right moments, holding the Rockies to a pathetic 1-for-15 night with runners in scoring position. They had at least one hit in every inning but the ninth, when Miles reached on an error and Matt Holliday walked, getting to second and third with one out. Yet even then, they remained there, the 14th and 15th Rockies left on base for the game. Nearly every single time the Nationals looked up, their pitcher was working from the stretch.

Armas survived six innings in which he allowed nine hits and two walks, but lowered his ERA to 4.33. And he was buoyed by the Nationals' offensive outburst, one that began with two runs in the second inning. Perhaps, in that inning, came the first indications that things would go right.

First, third baseman Vinny Castilla, trying desperately to shake a three-month funk, drove a two-out RBI double the opposite way, the kind of hit he gets when he's going well. Then, shortstop Cristian Guzman followed with perhaps the most stunning development of the night. When he arrived at the plate, he was 2 for 42 (.048) with two outs and runners in scoring position, yet he sent a single to right that brought Castilla home. The Nationals, who had been hitting .182 with runners in scoring position since the all-star break, went 6 for 13 in such situations.

"We did the job tonight with people out there," said center fielder Preston Wilson, who went 2 for 4 and hit one of the Nationals' seven doubles. "That's what we have to keep doing."

So, again, talk of the playoff chase surfaced, unsolicited, in the locker room afterward. Washington remained 5 1/2 games back of Atlanta in the NL East, and after Sunday's finale here, they play seven straight games against divisional opponents Philadelphia and New York.

"We haven't given up," Armas said. "A lot of people are talking a lot of trash out there. We're this. We're that. But we're battling. There's a lot of season left. So who knows what's going to happen?"


More in the Nationals Section

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Take an interactive tour of the district's newest stadium, Nationals Park.

Baseball Insider

Baseball Insider

Dave Sheinin reports the latest MLB news and examines the game's nuances.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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