Quiet Clubhouse, Quiet Loss

Philadelphia's David Bell trots home after hitting a grand slam off Nationals starter John Halama in the third inning.
Philadelphia's David Bell trots home after hitting a grand slam off Nationals starter John Halama in the third inning. (By Nick Wass -- Associated Press)

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By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 3, 2005

The pennant race staggered back into town last night, directly into a fractured clubhouse tucked beneath the stands and down a few dusty halls at RFK Stadium. The physical problems with the Washington Nationals are evident, for in a key game against the team that leads the National League's wild-card race, all they could do was hand the ball to 33-year-old left-hander John Halama and hope.

That didn't work, and Halama's gruesome five-run third inning was the main reason for a listless 7-1 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies last night at RFK, where 28,939 fans -- the smallest crowd since June 10 -- all but yawned at the proceedings. The Nationals have now lost five of their last seven games, and their five hits against Philadelphia starter Vicente Padilla and two relievers give them 11 in their last three home games, a period in which they have scored just one run.

The theme of this team, however, has turned from the drama that takes place on the field and is now focused on what takes place back in the tiny clubhouse, perhaps the smallest home locker room in the majors. According to two sources, Manager Frank Robinson was disgusted with the environment during this week's series in Atlanta, and he banned pregame music -- once a staple -- and generally locked down on the hangers-on who paraded seemingly at will through the visitors clubhouse at Turner Field in Atlanta.

"He's the manager, man," third baseman Vinny Castilla said. "He put the rules down. We just work here."

The group doing the most work these days is the battered bullpen, which was called on for six innings and gave up just one run. Not that it mattered. The Nationals fell four games behind the Phillies in the wild-card race -- their largest deficit since charting the race mattered -- and must now salvage the final two games of this series to extend their chances.

But they will do it in an environment which is vastly different from the ebullient surroundings that characterized the first half of the season. Robinson, for the most part, has been careful not to question his team's effort. Yet he has a feel for this club, and he knows things aren't the same as they were in those long-ago glory days of June, when it seemed the Nationals couldn't lose at RFK. The atmosphere in the clubhouse is somehow different, even with the chance at hand, even with the team returning to its home field for a 10-game homestand.

"I don't get the same feel," Robinson said. "I don't get that same electricity, the same energy, about the situation now that I did at the beginning of the year. That is missing out of the clubhouse and this ballclub, that type of energy."

Once Halama struggled through the third inning -- allowing five two-out runs, including David Bell's grand slam, to fall behind 6-1 -- there was very little in terms of energy. Afterward, in the clubhouse, outfielder Brad Wilkerson was asked about the mood of the team.

"I think it's getting a little ridiculous, to tell you the truth," Wilkerson said. "Hopefully -- I keep saying 'hopefully' -- we can get some momentum, get some confidence. But I think we got to want it. We got to realize what we're playing for. We're playing [teams] we're going to be going up against in the wild card.

"But now's the time. Now's the time to want it more than anything. And if we give it all we have and come up short, I can go home this offseason and work on next year. But if I had to go home right now, I wouldn't feel that way."

In the back of a nearly empty locker room, as Wilkerson spoke, Castilla joked with pitcher Esteban Loaiza, laughing loudly. Castilla was asked if he thought the team could still contend.

"How many games are left?" he asked. Twenty-seven, he was told. "Yeah, we're still in it," he responded. "We still got a chance."

Before the game, General Manager Jim Bowden, Robinson and the players themselves tried to maintain some balance between the urgency of the situation and the optimism that should come from hosting the wild-card leaders for three games.

"That's what you want, isn't it?" Bowden asked.

The clubhouse took on a much more serious tone. Yesterday afternoon, the music that usually pumps through the room was silent, and instead of watching music videos or playing cards -- the normal fare -- a few players plunked in front of the wide-screen TV looked at video of Padilla.

It didn't help. But it needs to. Soon.

"I'm very surprised about the attitudes and the stuff that's happening," Wilkerson said, "and I just can't understand why it seems the willingness to go out there and give it all you got and win, it's just not there."


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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