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Out of Moves, Nearly Out of Time

By Thomas Boswell
Friday, September 9, 2005

The hyper-competitive personalities and pedal-to-the-metal styles of Manager Frank Robinson and General Manager Jim Bowden meshed for five months of the Nationals' first season in Washington, bringing an excitement to the town and an appreciation of contending baseball that this city had not enjoyed since the 1930s and that few in the sport thought possible.

But it came at a cost. And that bill has now come due.

You can only play with injuries for so long, then come back quickly each time to hurt yourself anew. You can only feud with so many pitchers, then banish them to sundry distant cities. You can only make so many trades, hoping to keep postseason dreams alive a little longer, before some weakest link in the roster chain -- exposed by one trade too many -- is finally found.

Ultimately, there comes a game, probably last night's 8-4 loss to Florida that dropped the Nats four games out of the wild card, when the lineup looks like some remnant of a limping foreign legion while the pitching staff is so overworked that each succeeding hurler seems to arrive on the mound with his knuckles dragging closer to the ground than his predecessor. John Patterson, the elegant, 6-foot-5 right-hander who has emerged as a possible long-term staff ace, was the perfect emblem for the evening. After months of making hitters look silly, he felt "under the weather" and was battered for seven earned runs.

The Nats are far from eliminated from the wild-card complexities. Any time they want to win just five games in a row, and they once won 10 in a row (although it seems like it happened years ago), they will quickly be in the thick of the mix once more. But that seems remote for a team that now admits that it has no fifth starter whatsoever and, as a substitute for a number four starter, will only be able to field a team for Sunday's game by constructing a pitching committee of who-knows-how-many relievers.

If the Nats use nine pitchers, each for one inning, against John Smoltz on Sunday, you can thank Robinson and Bowden. You thanked them for that 50-31 start and for meaningful games throughout the entire summer. You begged for it, didn't you? So, perhaps, considerable forgiveness is almost mandatory now. Unless, of course, your strategy for the season in April was: "Don't try too hard. Keep everybody healthy. Don't make risky trades. And hit the Vegas preseason line of 71-91 on the nose."

Looking back, after 141 games, it's almost certain that the flame was worth the candle. For many years, Washington's inaugural season will be remembered as a stunning success and the crowds at RFK Stadium, which surpassed expectations, will no doubt attract new ownership with deep pockets and big dreams. But the last 21 games of this season, unless the 72-69 Nationals summon all their remaining pride to finish above .500, may not be easy on the eyes.

Perhaps it's just as well that, when those new owners arrive, they see well-rounded and less rosy portraits of key men like Robinson, Bowden and President Tony Tavares, the man who, if he'd loosened the call-up purse strings on September 1, adding 11 men to the death-march roster as Bowden wished, might have softened some of the current pain. It's just as well, before new contracts are handed out, that these last few weeks -- and questions about the health of several players who may have been worked hard too often then put up wet like field horses -- be balanced against months of glee.

Robinson's "frankness," some of it blistering, in motivating his players privately and in evaluating them publicly, helped drive a team that lost 95 games last season to first place on the Fourth of July. His demands and discipline also helped keep it playing beyond its talent and above its injuries until, past Labor Day, the unlikely Nats still found themselves in contention.

Bowden's obsession to make trades so a memorable season could continue fed directly into the 70-year-old Robinson's hope that his final go-round as a manager might be his finest. Bowden grinned 'til his face seemed likely to burst after his senior citizen manager almost came to blows with Angels Manager Mike Scioscia in June. And Robinson sang Bowden's praises every time he dealt for Junior Spivey, Preston Wilson, Marlon Byrd, Deivi Cruz or any other biped who might resuscitate his offense.

But the outstanding markers on this team are long past due. There's no need to send a gang of Vegas leg-breakers to collect; most of the Nationals elbows, shoulders, knees and ankles are already strained, wrenched, ruptured or awaiting surgery.

Or, as Florida Manager Jack McKeon asked innocently (we think) last night, "What happened to all their starting pitchers?

Well, Tomo Ohka, now prospering in the Brewers' rotation, and Zach Day, now a Rockie, were banished for what Robinson considered insubordination. The manager was widely praised then for his old-school mores. However, in light of the combined scores of John Halama's three recent starts -- 25-2 -- it's possible that Frank put a bit too much weight on the niceties of how a pitcher hands, or doesn't hand, the ball to his manager as he leaves the mound. Ohka is now 10-7 with a 3.93 ERA.

Claudio Vargas, now 8-8 as a dependable and entrenched Arizona starter, and Sunny Kim, 4-2 with a 4.50 ERA with the Rockies, were simply given away by Bowden -- put on waivers to clear roster spots so that temporary holes could be plugged in the hold of the leaking U.S.S. RFK. Nobody, including me, protested their departure. Yet they are pitchers who, when Tony Armas Jr. and Ryan Drese were injured recently, might have stepped in the rotation. Easy to say now.

Of course, if Armas were a tough-guy type who pitches through arm soreness after multiple doctors tell him there's nothing structurally wrong with his arm, then this fiasco might never have arisen. You can find front-office folk who'll speak harshly of Armas. But as second baseman Jose Vidro said last night, "Position players can usually play if the problem is just pain. Pitchers usually can't."

"It's an individual's decision. That's part of pitching. Only the individual can tell you," said pitching coach Randy St. Claire last night.

In Drese's case, the decision to shut down for the season and prepare for surgery may have been greased by his cool relationship with Robinson who once yanked him from a game in mid-at-bat, a no-no to a veteran pitcher's refined sensibilities.

Just as the wild-card race will finally be decided, much of the Nats' roster is exhausted, depleted or internally divided. Even Patterson was, according to Robinson, "under the weather" before his start.

"Do you feel like you are leading the [French] Foreign Legion?" Robinson was asked after this defeat. "No Vidro or Johnson. No fourth or fifth starter at all. Bullpen burned to a crisp. And so on."

"Whatever troops I have, I'll lead them. I don't want the team to feel sorry for itself. We'll go out and do what we can. . . . We're still in the race. Just [three] days ago, look where we were," said Robinson, meaning 1 1/2 games out of playoff position. "The same thing can happen again. But we have to take care of our business. We didn't come this far to play .500. We will compete until we are mathematically eliminated."

Pedal to the metal to the end. The engine's smoking, a couple of doors are gone and the wheels are wobbling. Whether this bunch, many of them -- even at the top -- playing for their jobs, makes it to the finish line or not, it's a ride nobody will forget.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company