Nats Play 'a Bad Ballgame'

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 8, 2006

VIERA, Fla., March 7 -- The wind blew out and the shadows grew long late Tuesday afternoon when the Black Eyed Peas' "Let's Get It Started" blared over the loudspeakers and wafted toward a dwindling crowd at Space Coast Stadium. Yet through the first seven games of this Grapefruit League season, the Washington Nationals haven't come close to getting started, and the debacle that took place Tuesday -- against the one team that might be picked behind the Nationals in the National League East, the Florida Marlins -- grew so embarrassing that routine catches drew sarcastic cheers from the scant few fans who remained in the late innings.

"No matter who's out there, you expect them to at least catch the ball, throw the ball and make good decisions fundamentally and execute fundamentally," Nats Manager Frank Robinson said. "We didn't do that. We didn't catch the ball in the wind. We didn't make good decisions on plays. We didn't execute fundamentally on the field. We played a bad ballgame today."

That the Nationals lost 22-12 to the Marlins -- a game in which they once trailed by 20 runs -- won't matter on Opening Day, still nearly four weeks away. It won't matter to the regulars who weren't in the lineup on Tuesday, including the entire starting infield, and Robinson strongly cautioned that performance by reserves and minor leaguers should be evaluated as such. "They're not going to be out there" when it counts, he snapped.

But after less than a week of games, it is clear the Nationals' laundry list of issues is going to pop up throughout the team's stay here and perhaps well into the season.

Take starting pitching. Only two members of the projected rotation -- John Patterson and Ramon Ortiz -- have appeared in games this spring, and Ortiz was rocked for seven runs in two innings Tuesday. With Ryan Drese still working his way back from shoulder surgery, Tony Armas Jr. playing in the World Baseball Classic for Venezuela and Brian Lawrence out at least four months after shoulder surgery, the Nationals must fill in during the exhibition season with also-rans and hopefuls.

"We are thin," Robinson said.

Ortiz, the 32-year-old right-hander signed as a free agent in the offseason, made his second appearance and was a victim as much of questionable defense as his own shoddy pitching. He said he made one major mistake, a change-up he left out over the plate to former National Matt Cepicky in the first, one which Cepicky deposited deep over the right field wall for a grand slam, the biggest blow in what eventually became a 21-1 lead.

"If you give up [six] runs in the first," reserve infielder Marlon Anderson said, "it's kind of tough to mentally get back into it."

Otherwise, though, Ortiz said he was happy with his performance.

"The way we missed the ball today," Ortiz said, "it's unbelievable."

The Nationals committed four errors, but more than that, they broke back on balls when they should have come in. They allowed two pop flies -- one behind catcher Matt LeCroy, one between third baseman Brendan Harris and pitcher Andrew Good -- to fall harmlessly to the grass. They gave up 26 hits, some of which might have been caught but instead danced around in the wind.

"It's an element," said center fielder Ryan Church, one of the few potential regulars to play. "You're supposed to deal with it."

All this came a day after Washington dropped half of a split-squad doubleheader to the Houston Astros, 11-1. In the two games Monday and the first 5 1/2 innings here Tuesday, the Nationals were outscored, 32-1. They have won only once in their first seven games. Yes, they are meaningless games. But players acknowledged they must still have some pride.

"We're professional ballplayers," LeCroy said. "You never want to put on a display like that. It's baseball, and it happens. But you got to start making some adjustments."

How many adjustments the Nationals can make while the World Baseball Classic continues remains to be seen. Wednesday, they will send journeyman Kyle Denney to the mound against the St. Louis Cardinals, and he will be followed by Felix Rodriguez, Steve Watkins and Jim Crowell. The evaluation of major league pitching begins again on Thursday, when Opening Day starter Livan Hernandez makes his first appearance, followed by new addition Pedro Astacio.

The other issue the Nationals won't be able to escape this spring is the status of Alfonso Soriano, the erstwhile second baseman whom Washington wants to move from the infield to the outfield against his will. Tuesday afternoon, some of Soriano's new teammates gathered around a television in the home clubhouse to watch him play for the Dominican Republic in the WBC. Earlier in the day, Donald Fehr, the executive director of the players association, said the union was unlikely to get involved in the Soriano matter.

"Ordinarily, unless a player is disciplined or something happens which affects his employment status," Fehr said, "that's something which is resolved on the team level."

So many things to resolve, and most of a month to do it. For those who participated in Tuesday's fiasco, Robinson thinks they should get to work.

"You expect more and better," Robinson said. "And the next time you're in that situation and those people are out there in the field, you'll have a sharper eye on them and focus on them a little bit more to see how they react."

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