By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 14, 2006
The latest debacle came in the form of a 13-4 shellacking at the hands of the New York Mets yesterday afternoon at RFK Stadium, and by the time it was over, the men who run the Washington Nationals' on-field operation -- General Manager Jim Bowden and Manager Frank Robinson -- had seen enough. With the team off to a 2-8 start that now features a five-game losing streak, they sent leadoff man Brandon Watson to the minors, recalled struggling outfielder Ryan Church and utility man Brendan Harris -- and threatened to blow up the team in the coming weeks if results don't improve.
"We're not going to sit here and watch another 10 games like the 10 games we've already had," Bowden said by phone after yesterday's game. "We have to right the ship. They have to right the ship. And if they don't, then we can release guys, we can trade guys. We'll do what it takes to get better."
The roster juggling comes not only as the team has the worst record in baseball, but with a backdrop of burgeoning controversy surrounding RFK Stadium itself. A day after veteran second baseman Jose Vidro made inflammatory comments regarding the park's dimensions, which many of the Nationals' hitters believe make it too difficult to hit home runs, two sources said yesterday that Vidro and club president Tony Tavares had a vocal confrontation outside the home clubhouse about the fact that the Nationals didn't move in the fences during the offseason.
The argument, which one source said grew heated, came roughly an hour before the Mets hit three homers in the first inning off Nationals right-hander Livan Hernandez.
"They kind of shot down the theory a little bit today, didn't they?" catcher Brian Schneider said.
All this left the Nationals, one of baseball's feel-good stories during the first half of last season, teetering on the edge of an early-season meltdown as they headed off for a six-game road trip to Florida and Philadelphia.
"We need to do something here to get this club going," Robinson said after Watson and Wiki Gonzalez, the backup catcher, were sent to Class AAA New Orleans, to be replaced by Church and Harris. "Are these two moves going to do it? I don't know. But we had to do something. I think it makes us a little bit better ballclub."
If those two moves don't improve the team -- Church will start in center field against right-handers, Harris will be used as an extra bat off the bench, leaving Matthew LeCroy as the backup catcher -- Bowden said he will find transactions that do. The Nationals are hampered by their roster, which contains very few players who have options -- meaning they can be sent to the minors without passing through waivers, and thus remain in the club's control.
"We're boxed in," Bowden said. "But when you're boxed in, the way you improve is by releasing guys or making trades."
One candidate for either fate could be left-hander Joey Eischen, who gave up five runs in just one inning of work yesterday and now has an ERA of 19.29 in five appearances. Other slow-starting players to whom the club isn't committed over the long term include shortstop Royce Clayton (.200 average in 35 at-bats), outfielder Marlon Byrd (.182 in 22 at-bats) and right-hander Ramon Ortiz (0-2, 8.18 ERA).
"We have some veteran guys who, when they look in the mirror, they're not going to like what they see with their batting averages, with their on-base percentages, with the pitches they're throwing -- with any of it," Bowden said. "We've got to open ourselves up to the possibility of making moves."
Bowden has long been famous for such impulsive overhauls during bad times. Last season, after a sweep at the hands of the Cincinnati Reds, he made nine changes to the Nationals' roster in a single day. In 2003, when he was the general manager of the Reds, he made seven moves between games of a doubleheader. After he heard the news, a disappointed Watson could have been channeling Bowden when he said, "In the big leagues, you've got to produce."
Watson didn't. After essentially beating out Church with a solid spring training in which he did everything the Nationals asked -- bunted, stole bases, drew walks and hit the ball the other way -- Watson couldn't duplicate the performance once the season began. He struck out in his only at-bat yesterday, as a pinch hitter, and will head to New Orleans having hit .179 with one walk and no extra-base hits.
"Brandon didn't get off to a very good start," Bowden said. "But we're not blaming Brandon Watson for our start. We just need to change directions."
They will do so with Church, who hit .287 with nine homers and 42 RBI as a rookie last year but struggled to a .200 average this spring -- and then hit .130 for New Orleans. That, then, is a sign of how desperate this team is.
"We know we're better than this," right fielder Jose Guillen said. "But we're not doing [well] right now. That's it."
Conversely, the Mets are doing well, and they started almost immediately with homers from Carlos Beltran, David Wright and Cliff Floyd in the first off Hernandez (1-2, 7.00 ERA). Carlos Delgado added another in the third, and the Mets -- who now have baseball's best record at 7-1 -- romped behind a fearsome lineup in which spots three through six collected nine hits, including four homers.
"We always felt like this lineup was going to be great," Floyd said.
The Nationals don't have anything close to that feeling. And before they gathered their belongings to head back out on the road after this three-game sweep at RFK, one member of the coaching staff mentioned to Robinson that maybe getting away from home would get the team "back on track."
"Hell," Robinson said. "We ain't ever been on track."