Nats Hurting After Another Painful Loss
Astros 10, Nationals 3

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The day started when Alex Escobar, the brand-new starting center fielder, said he couldn't play because of a hamstring problem. The misery continued when Zach Day, the starting pitcher, coughed up three runs in the first inning, then came out in the fourth complaining of shoulder stiffness. And when reliever Jon Rauch came off the field and threw up because of food poisoning, that was about all the Washington Nationals could handle last night.

"He came out and vomited," General Manager Jim Bowden said. "And it wasn't because of the baseball he was watching. . . . I vomited because of the baseball."

So after a deplorable 10-3 loss to the Houston Astros last night at RFK Stadium -- which hosted the smallest crowd since baseball returned to Washington last year, a gathering announced at 18,803 -- the revolving door in front of the home clubhouse began spinning again, with no good answers to the myriad problems at hand.

Escobar and Day were placed on the 15-day disabled list, Escobar with a left hamstring strain and Day with tendinitis in his right shoulder. They were replaced on the roster by relievers Saul Rivera and Santiago Ramirez, who had both pitched well for Class AAA New Orleans and now will be asked to help an overworked bullpen.

All this puts further emphasis on the lockers in the home clubhouse that are, each day, occupied by players who arrive at the park, get in a workout and then settle in to watch baseball for the evening. Last night, the list included starting catcher Brian Schneider, right fielder Jose Guillen and right-hander John Patterson, all marquee players who were to play important roles if this team had any hope for success. Throw in right-handers Brian Lawrence, Ryan Drese, Pedro Astacio and Luis Ayala and shortstop Cristian Guzman for good measure, and a team that might have struggled -- even if healthy -- is on the brink of flailing.

Asked how much he needed his marquee players back, Manager Frank Robinson said, "As bad as you could."

"But we've always known that," Robinson said. "This ballclub had to rely on the players that we would depend on, the front-line guys. If we lost one or two of those guys, two or three, we wouldn't be in good shape."

Now, the backups to the backups are falling to the side. Day, who gave up six runs in just 3 2/3 innings and suffered the loss, will have an MRI exam tomorrow to determine the extent of his problems, a test team orthopedist Ben Shaffer called "precautionary."

Day, though, clearly is worried. He said his poor location throughout the early part of his start -- in which he gave up a monstrous homer to Houston first baseman Lance Berkman, one that landed in the second row of Section 445 in the upper deck in center -- was an indication that "something was off."

Really, something has been off all season for Day. While with Colorado earlier this season, he complained of shoulder stiffness, and the team waived him. The Nationals, strapped because of all their injuries, pounced on him, and pitching coach Randy St. Claire believed he could alter Day's throwing motion -- taking him more from the side than over the top -- to put less strain on his shoulder.

The change seemed to work for a time. But last night, when he hit Eric Munson in the third, he said he thought something might be wrong. With two outs in the fourth, he walked Wandy Rodriguez, the opposing pitcher, on five pitches, and had a stronger indication. When he then gave up a double to Willy Taveras, St. Claire went to the mound for a visit, and that was it. Day was done.

"It's really discouraging," he said. "It's been so up and down the last couple of years, I just want to find out what the matter is."

There is, then, the matter of what is the matter with this entire team. Choose from the box score buffet, and order at least one of everything. The Nationals had a passed ball and an error, both by catcher Wiki Gonzalez, who was wretched behind the plate. They had a balk and a wild pitch, hit two batters and issued nine walks. All after they put themselves in position to win three games in a row for just the second time all year.

Momentum? They had it, and discarded it quite quickly.

"That has me shaking my head quite often this year," Robinson said. "I really don't understand it. . . . It seems like we don't take adversity well. . . . We just don't have the energy or the know-how to put your nose in the dirt to try to battle back."

Now, it will be the newcomers -- Ramirez and Rivera -- who will have to deal with the adversity that comes with being a National. Bowden called Ramirez the best pitcher at New Orleans, and he was 2-1 with a 0.99 ERA in 19 appearances. Rivera, Bowden said, was "solid" at 1-1 with a 1.59 ERA. Rivera was called up earlier this year, but didn't appear in a game for Washington. Bowden, too, was asked how much the regulars were missed.

"Check the record," he said. "That will show you the toll."

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