By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 18, 2006
CHICAGO, May 17 -- Get out the thesaurus and try to think up some words to describe what these Washington Nationals are going through. You might find something fancy and poetic, perhaps even tragic. Jose Vidro, their veteran second baseman, can strip all that down and make it mighty simple. "It's not worth watching," he said.
That would be one instant analysis after an ugly 5-0 loss to the Chicago Cubs on Wednesday night at cold and soggy Wrigley Field, a venue where the Nationals managed all of one hit off a tall rookie from Richmond named Sean Marshall and three relievers. The loss was the Nationals' sixth on this nine-game road trip, which concludes Thursday, and they have now been shut out twice in a row by the Cubs, a group that, 48 hours earlier, was being dissected by the denizens of this baseball-loving city as a group of underachievers that needed changes, and lots of them.
Now, then, what to make of the Nationals? They have five hits in their two games here, all singles. They have hitters in their lineup that are supposed to be able to produce, Vidro, Nick Johnson, Jose Guillen and Alfonso Soriano. Yet Marshall, a left-hander making his eighth major league start, allowed only Soriano's soft single to left to lead off the sixth, and in the few instances he got into trouble, he overpowered the Nationals with one of his six strikeouts.
Are the Nationals' hitters better than what they're showing?
"It definitely can't get any worse," Vidro said.
That seems to be the theme of the season now. Forty games in, the Nationals are a season-low 14 games under .500, and have been one-hit twice. Their offense ranks 12th or worse in the National League in runs scored, batting average, slugging percentage and on-base percentage. When the Cubs pushed across an unearned run against right-hander Zach Day in the first, it felt as if Chicago had all it would need.
"It's part of the game," hitting coach Mitchell Page said. "That's why you play 162 games."
In truth, the day didn't have a good feel to it from the start with ominous skies over Wrigley, where a chill set in and heavy rain and even hail fell. At some point during all that, Nationals Manager Frank Robinson was standing in his office, and he bent over to sign an autograph on the desk in front of him. As he straightened up, he felt a pain in his back down to his hip, a feeling that staggered him.
"I don't know what it was," he said.
Robinson found himself in the trainer's room receiving an anti-inflammatory injection. Just more than two hours before the scheduled start of the game -- one which was delayed 51 minutes by the weather -- General Manager Jim Bowden announced that Robinson would be unable to perform his duties, and bench coach Eddie Rodriguez would take over.
Two hours after that announcement, Robinson was ready to return to the dugout. Scratch the scratch.
"There was never a doubt in my mind," Robinson said. "I was going to manage tonight."
So cue the jokes about how he wished he had just stayed on that trainer's table, flat on his back, perhaps unconscious. There was nothing to like about this fiasco.
Start with Day. Day -- once a National, traded last year, then picked up off waivers late last month -- had shown encouraging signs in his past two starts in which he had allowed just one run and walked just two over 14 innings. But from the beginning, there were signs of trouble Wednesday night. He hadn't even thrown a pitch in the bottom of the first when catcher Wiki Gonzalez asked for a conference. One batter later, pitching coach Randy St. Claire emerged for a conference with Day. The pair had never worked together, and they had trouble agreeing on the correct signs.
"We weren't on the same page," Day said.
That kind of tedium continued throughout Day's four-inning, four-run outing, though to be fair, it wasn't all his fault. With two outs in the first, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman failed to field a tough-hop grounder, an error that led to an unearned run. In the bottom of the second, Day allowed a leadoff double to Jacque Jones. From there, though, he was pecked to his demise. The next three men went sacrifice, squeeze bunt to score a run and infield single. With the bases loaded, Todd Walker lined a 3-2 pitch into center, a two-run single that made it 4-0.
Yes, the Nationals had opportunities. In the fifth, Marshall issued a pair of walks, but Robert Fick -- making his debut for the Nationals after missing the first six weeks of the season following elbow surgery -- struck out looking with runners on second and third. Just for good measure, and to add to the overall bizarre nature of the day, Fick said something to home plate umpire Marvin Hudson, and he was ejected.
In the sixth, Soriano's single was followed by strikeouts form Marlon Byrd and Vidro. But when Johnson walked, here came -- Marlon Anderson. The utility man had replaced Guillen in right field during the fourth inning, when Guillen left with a slight hamstring strain.
"Nothing's going right," said Guillen, who said he originally suffered the injury last week in Cincinnati.
Indeed, that's the case. Anderson flailed at Marshall's 100th pitch, and the Nationals did not going to get another good opportunity. The three Cubs relievers worked three perfect innings, capped by Scott Eyre, who struck out the side in the ninth.
"It's not just the hitting," Vidro said. "It's everything. No 'W's'. No nothing. We're struggling badly right now."