By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 27, 2006
Once upon a time, the stands along the left field line at RFK Stadium would bounce with joy, filled with fans excited about the return of baseball to Washington. That time was just last spring, when the hometown Nationals made a beeline toward first place in the National League East, when each game at the old park seemed to have some sort of electric element. A key hit would be delivered at the right moment, a one-run lead would hold up in the late innings and the expectations -- of players, coaches, management and fans -- became that the Nationals would win, and everyone would leave happy.
Yesterday, though, those memories seemed almost as distant as those from when the Senators inhabited RFK. The Nationals managed all of one hit. An announced crowd of 19,380 took it in rather placidly, with one fan finally yelling "Bo-ring!" in the eighth inning. And when the Cincinnati Reds slapped hands and patted backs after a routine 5-0 victory, they celebrated a sweep at RFK, where the Nationals have won only once in eight tries this season.
Thus, it was a somber clubhouse in which the Nationals packed their bags for their upcoming six-game trip to St. Louis and New York, toting along a four-game losing streak that gave the home fans who did show up very little about which to cheer.
"It's baffling, really," Manager Frank Robinson said. "It's mind-boggling to try to figure out why. I don't understand it. We come home, and we're in a slump."
The specifics of yesterday's game point to why the Reds have become one of the NL's surprise teams, winners of four straight and seven of eight. Bronson Arroyo, acquired in a preseason trade with Boston for outfielder Wily Mo Peña, improved to 4-0 with eight innings of one-hit ball in which he struck out eight and walked only two, and the Reds took advantage of the offensive chances presented to them. The Nationals, meanwhile, continued a trend that dates back to last year, when they struggled against pitchers who rely mainly on off-speed pitches and stay away from fastballs.
"We're a great fastball-hitting team," shortstop Royce Clayton said. "We get a guy throwing hard, we're going to put some good lumber on him. But we got to make adjustments against off-speed stuff."
Robinson's assessment of yesterday's effort, when Ryan Zimmerman's fourth-inning single was the only hit: "We don't attack the pitcher's strong suit. We're a fastball-hitting ballclub and we make no adjustments."
The Nationals have now been swept twice in three series at RFK, first by the New York Mets, now by the Reds, and their only victory came Friday night against hard-throwing John Smoltz of the Atlanta Braves. There was a sense as they gathered their belongings that some Nationals dread coming to RFK.
"I'm just happy to be out of here and to go on the road now," said Jose Guillen, who struck out as a pinch hitter to end the game. "Don't get me wrong. I love the fans here and the city here. They've been great to me. But I'm sick and tired of this stadium. I just cannot stand playing here. That's the truth."
The issue for the Nationals' hitters is the spacious dimensions at RFK, which have been occasionally criticized, most notably by Guillen and second baseman Jose Vidro. Against Arroyo, though, they hardly made a difference. Reserve infielder Brendan Harris was the only National to hit a ball deep to the outfield, one Reds center fielder Ryan Freel tracked down before he crashed into the wall. Other than that, nothing.
"I don't know what it was we hit," Robinson said. "Two balls hard? Three balls hard? That's about it."
The Reds, meanwhile, got a solo homer from catcher David Ross in the third, then benefited from two errors -- one from starter Ramon Ortiz, the other from center fielder Ryan Church -- in a three-run fourth that all but sealed the outcome.
Even with the offensive struggles, it is the pitching that is in more disarray, to the point where Ortiz's outing of 6 2/3 innings in which he gave up four earned runs was considered encouraging. Before and during the game, the Nationals made a slew of moves -- including calling up left-hander Michael O'Connor to make his major league debut in a start today against the Cardinals and claiming former National Zach Day off waivers from Colorado -- meant to add depth to a reeling staff whose best starter, John Patterson, doesn't know when he'll make his next appearance because of tightness in his forearm.
What, then, can be done to prevent the season from slipping away? Most players eschewed the notion of a players-only meeting, though they realize things need to change.
"I think it's across the board," reliever Joey Eischen said, "and everybody in here needs to step it up."
They will have to do so on the road against the Cardinals and the Mets, two of the best teams in the league. But with their next appearance at RFK in May, when the first month of the season will be history, they are beginning to understand that there are precious few days to waste.
"You can't keep going like this and saying: 'Well, it's early. It's going to come around,' " Robinson said. "We need to get results, and we need to get them starting tomorrow. We didn't get them here at home. We need to start tomorrow. Not this [upcoming] series. Tomorrow ."