Nats' Return Home Is Uninspired

Brian Schneider can't reach the throw, which is too late anyway, and Austin Kearns scores to make it 5-2 Cincinnati.
Brian Schneider can't reach the throw, which is too late anyway, and Austin Kearns scores to make it 5-2 Cincinnati. "This is a key stretch to our season," Schneider said. "This is a big run for us." (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 24, 2005

For more than four months, pitching, and little else, has kept the Washington Nationals in the chase for the playoffs. Their offense often evaporates. Their best hitters look like Little Leaguers for long stretches. But when the sun rises the next morning, the pitching gets back up with it.

Last night, then, was perhaps as significant an evening as the Nationals have had. That they managed just four hits against Cincinnati Reds starter Luke Hudson -- who entered the game with a 7.35 ERA, who had never thrown more than six innings in a major league game -- is not a surprise. That they allowed Hudson to beat them, 6-2, in the first game of a crucial homestand fits in with their history of being dismissed by no-name pitchers. It was, in so many ways, rote for this group.

But the real problems developed in the third inning, when right-hander Tony Armas Jr. gave up four runs, hit for himself in the bottom of the inning, but didn't return for the fourth, the victim of soreness in his right shoulder, the second time this month he has left a start early for that reason. And after the game, the team announced that right-hander Ryan Drese, the fifth starter, will be placed on the disabled list today because of tendinitis in his right shoulder.

Suddenly, a staff that has propped up baseball's least productive offense could be without 40 percent of its starting rotation at a time when the pennant race will be decided.

"You hate to lose Drese, and maybe lose Tony," catcher Brian Schneider said. "This is a key stretch to our season. This is a big run for us."

It began in completely sour fashion. An announced crowd of 35,656 welcomed the Nationals back to RFK Stadium from a 13-game road trip, one in which they failed to take advantage of several opportunities, yet survived. But what followed was a flat performance against Hudson and two relievers. Vinny Castilla and Jose Guillen hit solo homers for Washington, but there were just two singles beyond that. The last 13 Nationals went down in order.

"It has been the whole season for us," Castilla said. "We don't score too many runs. We show signs, but we don't do the job."

In the third, Armas didn't either. When Cincinnati's Edwin Encarnacion hit the first pitch of the inning for a home run, the radar gun registered 83 mph, and Nationals Manager Frank Robinson figured it was a slider.

"I was told it was a fastball," Robinson said.

Armas's zip was gone. He finished the inning, but couldn't go any further. Armas had already left his July 3 start against Los Angeles with tightness in his shoulder.

"It was a concern before, and it's certainly a concern tonight," Robinson said. "We just didn't give ourselves a fair shake tonight, because in the third inning, he couldn't miss a bat."

Armas was replaced by Hector Carrasco. And in a 4-2 game, the Nationals, as is their way, had one true opportunity to score more. In the fifth, Hudson hit Castilla with a pitch to start the inning, and Cristian Guzman followed with a drag bunt that he popped up, but which fell out of Hudson's reach, an infield single.

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