By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 1, 2006
ST. LOUIS, April 30 -- Frank Robinson sat in a chair at the edge of the visitors' dugout Sunday afternoon, a stadium full of red spread out around him. When the St. Louis Cardinals recorded the final out, and the crowd at Busch Stadium rose and cheered a 9-2 victory over Robinson's Washington Nationals, the 70-year-old manager slid off his seat, spit on the floor in front of him, and headed for the cover of the clubhouse. He has seen this all too often already, and it is looking increasingly likely that he will see it time and again over what could be a long, tiresome summer.
The Nationals closed a miserable April with another performance Sunday at Busch Stadium in which they battled for a time, watched the opposition take the lead, and then simply stopped producing -- on the mound or at the plate. They allowed eight runs over the final four innings. They let Cardinals center fielder Jim Edmonds, who drove in three runs, make them pay for four walks of the fearsome Albert Pujols. They managed one hit after the fourth.
Thus, they have seven losses in their past eight games, and they finished the month nine games below .500 -- the team's worst month since they moved to Washington.
"I don't know what else to really say," Robinson said. "We're just not doing the job that we have to do on a daily basis. We play one decent ballgame, and then the next day, it looks like we don't even know what the game's about."
Now, they face perhaps the most significant week in the brief history of the franchise's tenure in Washington -- a week in which a new owner will almost certainly be named and when ground will be broken for a new stadium along the Anacostia River waterfront -- at a time when they are sputtering on the field and at the gate. They won only two of eight series in April, and they finished their last homestand with their four smallest crowds ever at RFK Stadium.
They have tried team meetings, the latest on Thursday night, in which they agreed to reset their record to 0-0 and start over. It was, veteran shortstop Royce Clayton said, one of the "little games inside the game you have to play to keep your psychological edge going." But nothing changed.
"The immediate reality is we've dug a pretty big hole," Clayton said, "and I think the right answer is: It's going to take awhile to get out of it."
When the Nationals left last April behind, there was a sense that they were stable, perhaps even moving forward. They had a 13-11 record and clearly received energy from their new surroundings in Washington. Yet when the Nationals played their best ball last season, they were nearly flawless in the field, they rarely blew a lead in the late innings, and they came through with timely hits. This April, they allowed an unearned run almost once every two games, and their average with runners in scoring position -- .238 after a 1-for-8 effort Sunday -- ranks 14th in the National League.
"We haven't played as well as I feel like we're capable of playing, and we've cost ourselves some games," Robinson said. "And this is why we're where we are and our record is what it is. We just haven't clicked as a club yet. We haven't gotten it together."
That is most true of the black-and-blue pitching staff, one that started to come together in St. Louis after strong performances from starters Mike O'Connor, Tony Armas Jr. and Livan Hernandez. Still, the Nationals seemed to be playing from behind all month, giving up an average of just more than one run per first inning (26 in 25 games), a trend that puts Washington in comeback mode almost from the get-go.
"It's been very difficult on the team," pitching coach Randy St. Claire said. "It's hard to go out there to hit when you're six runs down, five runs down, four runs down early in the game. It doesn't give you a chance to get your offense going. Guys start pressing. The [opposing] pitcher out there feels nice and relaxed, and he's just doing his thing out there. There's no pressure on him."
Perhaps no player manifests the Nationals' inconsistencies better than Ryan Zimmerman, their rookie third baseman. On Sunday alone, he hit his fourth homer of the year, a solo shot in the second, and then singled and scored in the fourth. But in his next two at-bats, he twice struck out looking. The mixed performance ended a decidedly mixed month for Zimmerman, who hit .242 but led the team with 17 RBI, who dazzled defensively but struck out 27 times.
"I think I've learned to make adjustments," he said after Sunday's game.
The whole team, though, must learn to make them better. Zach Day, the right-hander claimed off waivers from the Colorado Rockies last week, is trying to adjust his arm slot when he pitches, making it more to the side so that it lessens the strain on his shoulder. In his first start for the Nationals since last May -- before he was traded to Colorado in July -- Day was mostly solid, allowing only a solo homer to Juan Encarnacion through four innings.
But with one out in the fifth, Day committed the tiniest of sins, walking No. 8 hitter Aaron Miles to get to the opposing pitcher, Jeff Suppan, who used a grounder to move Miles to second in a game the Nationals actually led 2-1. The next man, shortstop David Eckstein, beat out a throw to first by Clayton by half a step. "One of those bang-bang plays," Clayton said.
And that, for the Nationals, was basically it. With two outs, Day allowed a run-scoring single to John Rodriguez to tie the score. He walked Pujols to load the bases for Edmonds, who drilled the first pitch he saw back up the middle, a two-run single that put the Cardinals up to stay, 4-2.
Robinson called Day's performance "very encouraging," but it is the kind of small victory the Nationals are forced to look for now. General Manager Jim Bowden said over the weekend, "You don't panic in April," and, indeed, there seems to be very few moves the club could make to overhaul the personnel.
"We got the talent here," second baseman Jose Vidro said. "It's just that I don't see that desire out there right now. The other team seems to score runs, and for us, that's like the end of the world."
It is not, the players said, the end of the world. One bad month does not a season make. But each loss makes it that much more difficult to turn around.
"We're just going through a very bad moment right now," Vidro said. "Nothing's going our way. It's no fun right now."