For Nats, Autumn Brings The Fall

By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 25, 2005

The pennant race was probably over for the Nationals last weekend in San Diego, but a sense of finality lingered over RFK Stadium last night. Manager Frank Robinson slumped in a chair at his pregame news conference resigned to the fact that the last few games of the season are merely for the vanity of a .500 season.

He shrugged. There were five people in the room to listen to him yesterday, and after the buzz of the new team and first place, when Robinson's news conferences were often standing-room only events, the session seemed awkward. There was no banter, no joking, none of the one-liners for which Robinson became famous this year.

Instead, he forced a wan smile four hours before his team lost, 5-2, to the Mets. And despite still being alive for the wild card by the faintest of hope, he pulled the curtain on the season.

Third baseman Vinny Castilla will not play anymore this year. Neither will catcher Brian Schneider, reliever Luis Ayala and closer Chad Cordero. Each move makes perfect sense: Castilla has been bothered by a knee injury, Schneider's throwing shoulder hasn't been right in months and Ayala and Cordero are considered pieces too valuable to use in meaningless games.

And while not wholly unexpected, word had not trickled to all the players involved. When Schneider was asked before the game about his season's premature end, he looked stunned and immediately headed toward Robinson's office. An hour later, after batting practice, he calmed down and even seemed resigned, much like his manager.

"I was a little shocked," he admitted. "Obviously if I went in there and was irate and said 'I can play,' [Robinson would relent]. But I honestly can't go in there and say 'I can play.' "

His shoulder is sore and has been since the middle of summer. An MRI exam a few weeks ago showed only inflammation and while he hasn't had another MRI in recent days, it seems the only prescription for him is rest. The same seems to be true for the 38-year-old Castilla, whose numbers declined steadily as the season wore on. He said this was a result of his knee, which began to hurt around midseason and got so bad he was unable to generate much power from his swing.

"Why [keep playing]?" he asked yesterday. "I'm hurt."

Robinson originally planned to sit more players this week as well. He talked to an aching Jose Guillen about resting his sore ankle, shoulder and hamstring, but Guillen said he wanted to play at least a couple of games so he will be in the lineup sometime. So too will outfielder Brad Wilkerson, who was in so much pain this season that he would often wear two or three ice packs at a time after games. He too asked Robinson to play a few more innings.

First baseman Nick Johnson's heel has been sore, but he has asked to be used and Robinson obliged. Last night, Johnson pinch-hit in the ninth inning and made the last out of the game on a fly ball to center.

Robinson even talked to outfielder Preston Wilson about sitting out, but Wilson, a free agent at year's end, wants to reach 90 RBI. He has 84 now.

"I can respect that," Robinson said.

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