By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 4, 2006
Optimism and promise swirled around them yesterday, and the Washington Nationals found it all quite contagious. Between jokes and laughs in their pregame clubhouse, players anointed last night the perfect time for a season rebirth. Their franchise finally had an owner. They stared ahead at five home games against two of the worst teams in baseball.
"Right now is the time to forget all the bad and think about the future," second baseman Jose Vidro said.
Their 6-5 loss to the lowly Marlins last night dealt the Nationals something of a reality check. Their organization might have moved forward yesterday by naming Theodore N. Lerner its new owner, but this Nationals team remained stuck in a dreadful present. Its starting pitcher, Tony Armas, imploded before the third inning; its offense crawled out of a five-run hole only to watch Florida shortstop Hanley Ramirez arc a bloop single to score Dan Uggla for the winning run in the ninth.
The Nationals (9-19) dropped 10 games below .500 and fell to 1-8 at home in front of 21,918 fans at RFK Stadium. A day Washington players celebrated for its hopefulness ended with a symbol of the opposite: another defeated, heads-down trudge back through the dugout played out to the soundtrack of jeering fans.
"We had a lot to overcome, but we had the opportunities to do it," Manager Frank Robinson said. "We just didn't come through. We can't seem to make that big play that puts us over the top."
This defeat felt even worse than usual, Nationals players said later, because it negated much time -- 3 hours 54 minutes -- and so much effort. Washington trailed by five runs midway through the third inning, but chipped steadily back with runs in the third, fifth and sixth. When Brian Schneider completed the comeback with a home run in the seventh inning, the Nationals momentarily celebrated an unlikely hero.
In a lineup packed with struggling hitters, Schneider has often stood out for ineptitude this season. After he missed most of spring training to play in the World Baseball Classic, his swing never recovered. He has tended to swing late, move his hands too slowly and sometimes back away from the ball. With his home run, Schneider hoped he had accomplished two tasks at once: propelling both himself and the Nationals out of slumps.
"I thought it was ours when we tied it," Vidro said. "We should have had this one."
The struggling Nationals had highlighted this homestand as their perfect panacea: five home games against two poor teams that deteriorate even further when they play on the road. The Marlins and Pirates entered last night with a combined road record of 6-22.
The announcement of Lerner as Washington's new owner only lifted the team's spirit higher. The Nationals held a team-only meeting two hours before last night's game, and they emerged from the clubhouse gushing about the long-awaited relief of an owner being named.
"Finally, there's going to be control. There's going to be rules," reliever Joey Eischen said. "There's going to be peace around here. I guarantee you that every player in here is happy. This is one of the best things that's happened in a long time."
It took Armas only a few inefficient innings to mar the Nationals' cheerfulness. The pitcher had thrown well in all five starts this season, but never looked composed yesterday. He struggled to maintain control while throwing 30 pitches in the first inning. He lost control altogether in the second inning.
Armas hit Miguel Olivo to lead off the second, then gave up a line-drive home run to Reggie Abercrombie two batters later. The third inning started similarly -- Armas hit Miguel Cabrera and threw a wild pitch to give up another run -- until Robinson pulled his starter. Armas had barely settled into his seat in the dugout before his replacement, Jason Bergmann, gave up another two-run homer, saddling Washington with a five-run deficit.
"I just didn't do my job," Armas said. "I put us in a big hole. I let my whole team down."