By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 5, 2006
When Matthew LeCroy struck out with the bases loaded, accounting for the final out in a miserable 11-3 loss to the Florida Marlins last night at RFK Stadium, Theodore N. Lerner, the new owner of the Washington Nationals, rose from his seat behind the home dugout and turned to the members of his family. It's a wonder the 80-year-old real estate magnate, the man who just spent a fortune on this woeful club, didn't start fishing through the pockets of his trousers, searching for a gigantic receipt.
"Hey," he might have asked Major League Baseball. "Do you have a 30-day return policy? Can I get my $450 million back?"
That's how bad the situation appeared on the night the Lerner family and the team's incoming president, Stan Kasten, took in their first game since they were named the winning bidders for the Nationals on Wednesday. What they saw drew the ire of the team's manager, Frank Robinson, who has just about had it with a group of players that he believes folds at the first sign of adversity.
"I'm embarrassed for this team, because the fans are coming out here, they're being very supportive," Robinson said. "And we're not giving them what they deserve. Not even close.
"I'm very surprised they're not throwing things at us. We deserve whatever they might do or say. I'm amazed that they're still coming out here. I wouldn't pay to see us."
There is the matter of that problem, for only 20,984 paid to see this ugly affair, the third-smallest crowd since the team moved here from Montreal for the 2005 season. Sagging attendance is something the Lerners and Kasten will have to address.
But on a night that might have been reserved for celebration -- Kasten and Ted Lerner's son Mark made the rounds at the stadium, smiling and shaking hands -- their primary message about their vision for the team looked prescient. They believe rebuilding the Nationals will take time -- lots of time. The first 29 games of this season, 20 of which have been losses, would seem to indicate that they're right. Making matters worse, they've dropped nine of their first 10 at RFK.
"It's more sad than embarrassing," center fielder Marlon Byrd said. "We didn't show anything these last two games."
Those would be a pair of home losses to the Marlins, who play rookies on a nightly basis after an offseason purge of high-priced talent. "They're a Triple-A team is what they are," one baseball executive said. "You can't say it, but that's what they are."
What, then, does that make the Nationals? The Marlins arrived in Washington losers of five straight. They left on just their second winning streak of the year.
Try to pick out the worst part of this loss for the Nationals. The place to start, it would seem, would be at the beginning, for right-hander Livan Hernandez walked the first two men he faced. Given his struggles in the first inning of games this year, that drew a visit from Robinson himself.
Hernandez said he felt he was getting squeezed by home plate umpire Mike Everitt. When he threw a strike, Miguel Cabrera -- the one legitimate, proven slugger in the Marlins' lineup -- sent it into left field for a two-run double, and the rout was on. Hernandez allowed three runs in the first -- an inning in which his ERA is now 19.29 in his seven starts this season -- and two more in the second, putting the Nationals in a 5-0 hole.
"Today," Hernandez said, "the team lose because I pitched bad."
Fair enough. Except some teams fight back from deficits, even from the 7-2 margin that resulted after Hernandez allowed a two-run homer to Josh Willingham in the fifth. On Wednesday night, Washington fell behind by five runs early, stormed back to tie it, but fell in the ninth, 6-5.
That kind of comeback hasn't happened enough. Asked if he has talked to his team about fighting back, Robinson said, "There's not a day that we don't address it."
The fight last night amounted to Hernandez's two-run double in the second, the Nationals' only hit through the first six innings against Florida right-hander Josh Johnson -- making just the second start of his career -- and reliever Randy Messenger. From the end of the second through the sixth, 13 straight Nationals went down in order.
"We seem to not be focused," Robinson said. "We seem to not concentrate. We don't seem to go out and know what we want to do offensively, defensively, or pitching on a consistent basis. The offense stinks. The pitching [and] fielding has been spotty. Too many mental mistakes, and certainly too many physical mistakes."
This is the framework the Lerners and Kasten will inherent when the other major league owners approve the sale later this month, and when the transaction closes, a development expected to come in June. "There are no panic buttons," General Manager Jim Bowden said before the game. But the situation is dire.
"We have to get our infrastructure in place," Kasten said Wednesday.
Robinson, though, doesn't have time for that. He is 70 himself, and there is no guarantee he will have a future with this team.
"I'm tired of seeing it," he said. "I really am. They're better than what they're playing. It's time for them to step up. Thirty ballgames, and we haven't even approached anything that resembles a good ballclub or a decent ballclub."
Several times, he thumped his finger on the table in front of him, pointing for emphasis. His players said he was mad after the game, as they all were. But what to do?
"I guarantee you," he said. "Starting tomorrow, we will play better, and I will manage better."