Astros Can't Steal Win Against Nats

Nats' Royce Clayton leaps for the ball as Houston's Morgan Ensberg steals second during the seventh inning Thursday. The Astros stole seven bases, but lost the game, 8-5.
Nats' Royce Clayton leaps for the ball as Houston's Morgan Ensberg steals second during the seventh inning Thursday. The Astros stole seven bases, but lost the game, 8-5. (Nick Wass - AP)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 26, 2006

His Washington Nationals had just beaten the Houston Astros 8-5, had just won three games in a row for just the second time all year. Yet here was Frank Robinson, 70 years old, half a century in the game, with tears welling in the corners of his eyes and rolling down his cheeks. His right hand obscured part of his face. He all but chewed on his pinkie. As he pushed each phrase through his lips, he sighed deeply, all because he asked a grown man to perform a task he is ill equipped to perform.

Matthew LeCroy started at catcher for the Nationals yesterday afternoon at RFK Stadium. But once the Astros realized LeCroy not only hadn't thrown out a base runner all year, but had little chance of reversing the trend against them, they began running -- and they didn't stop. Seven steals and two throwing errors from LeCroy into this affair -- with the Nationals in danger of blowing a six-run lead -- Robinson made the only move he thought he could make. He pulled LeCroy off the field in the top of the seventh, replacing him in mid-inning in front of an announced crowd of 24,733 with Robert Fick, a man who hadn't caught a major league pitch all season.

"I wasn't trying to embarrass him in any way," Robinson said haltingly. "It was just a move at the time, at that moment, I just felt like I had to do it," he continued, before pausing again, "for the good of the ballclub, [to] try to win that ballgame."

For Robinson, a Hall of Famer who strongly believes that things should be done a certain way, the aftermath of the Nationals' fifth win in six games wasn't a time to celebrate. He didn't concentrate on his team's offensive performance against Houston left-hander Andy Pettitte, whom they chased after three innings by scoring seven runs, including a three-run homer by Jose Vidro. He didn't mention his frustration over the seven walks issued by his pitchers or starter Tony Armas Jr.'s inability to shut down the Astros when given a 7-1 lead.

Instead, nearly an hour after the game, Robinson sat alone in his office, uniform still on, and insisted there were no other forces tugging at him. "Nothing," he said.

Fick entered the game a batter after LeCroy's second throwing error, with the Nationals clinging to a 7-5 lead in the seventh. The Astros had runners on first and second, and right-hander Jon Rauch -- who walked the first two men he faced -- was on the mound. LeCroy jogged back to the dugout, where he was greeted by each and every teammate. Crying is supposed to be prohibited in baseball. Empathy isn't.

"You feel for him," said starting catcher Brian Schneider, on the disabled list with a sore hamstring.

LeCroy, though, was professional, part of the reason for Robinson's emotion. He is the clubhouse clown, and before the game, he performed a mock dance to a hip-hop beat for his teammates, wearing sunglasses and flashy jewelry, even eliciting a laugh from Robinson. That he hasn't complained about his inconsistent playing time makes Robinson respect him more.

"I'm man enough to take it," LeCroy said. "I don't think he should get that emotional about it. He's just doing his job, just like I would do if I was in his position."

The Nationals found themselves in this position because Schneider isn't eligible to come off the disabled list until today; both Robinson and General Manager Jim Bowden said he would be activated before tonight's game against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Backup Wiki Gonzalez, who had been dreadful defensively in the early part of this week, suffered a mild concussion when he was hit by a bat Wednesday night.

That left LeCroy, who had started eight games at catcher and failed to throw out any of the 13 runners who tried to steal against him. Much of the problem, the Nationals believe, is their pitching staff, which does a poor job of holding runners on. But the reason Gonzalez was promoted from the minors May 14 is because Fick was coming off elbow surgery, and the Nationals felt they no longer could afford to use LeCroy at catcher. The Astros hadn't stolen more than two bases in a game all year. Yesterday, they ran wild.

"It's not LeCroy's fault," Robinson said. "We know his shortcomings. They took advantage of him today. That's my responsibility. I put him in there. . . . That's on my shoulders."

In the end, the move worked -- though Rauch's first pitch to the next batter, Eric Bruntlett, sailed past Fick. It was a wild pitch Schneider surely would have blocked, and it put runners on second and third. Suddenly, in a game the Nationals once led 7-1, the Astros had the tying runs in scoring position. And when Bruntlett hit a hard ball that ricocheted off Rauch for an infield single, the runners held, but the bases were loaded.

"All of a sudden, it's 7-5, and they got the tying run at second base," said Vidro, who went 2 for 3 and drove in four runs. "I said, 'Wow.' With the people they have there, I thought it was going to be a tie game for us."

Yet Rauch, still feeling the aftereffects of what the club has called food poisoning, somehow came through. He struck out Adam Everett for the first out, got a harmless popup from pinch hitter Craig Biggio for the second, then fielded a come-backer from Chris Burke to retire the side, preserve the lead and bail out both himself and LeCroy.

And long after the game, the Hall of Famer seemed to think only of the catcher he replaced.

"I feel for him," Robinson said. "I hope the fans understand."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company