By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 16, 2006
When the latest humiliation ended and an 8-1 thrashing at the hands of the Colorado Rockies became official, Frank Robinson remained on the top step of the home dugout at RFK Stadium. He turned to face his team as they scooped up their belongings and headed to the clubhouse. He gathered his thoughts. With four straight losses, the Washington Nationals frittered away so much good work done over the last month. Robinson had much on his mind, and much to say.
In a quiet clubhouse afterward, and with the New York Yankees on the way into town, Robinson delivered a speech, the kind he makes very rarely. He believes such explosions are of no use if they come too often. But after the team's first four-game sweep since it moved to Washington -- a development that sent the middling Rockies from two games under .500 to two games over -- Robinson let his team know precisely how he felt.
"You know Frank," reserve Robert Fick said. "He wasn't happy."
Those nine wins in 11 games before Colorado came to town? Gone. Those six wins in their last seven series? Poof. And just ahead, a string of games in which the Nationals might have a difficult time competing -- three against the Yankees this weekend at RFK, three more in Boston next week.
"We worked very hard for three-and-a-half weeks to get ourselves straightened out and were playing really good baseball," Robinson said in his office long after he delivered the message to his team. "And all of a sudden, in four days, we put ourselves right back in that hole again, looking like the team that was here before we got ourselves on that streak. I didn't understand it."
He still doesn't. The aftermath of yesterday's debacle included not only the postgame meeting, but the firing of bullpen coach John Wetteland, a move Robinson felt was necessary but which could be received poorly by some of the relievers. That controversy was only slightly more unpleasant than the series against the Rockies, one in which the Nationals were outscored by 21 runs, one in which Colorado collected 50 hits to just 26 for Washington. Somehow, after experiencing something of a revival, the Nationals didn't even appear competitive.
"We played like a minor league team," said left fielder Alfonso Soriano, who went 2 for 19 in the series. "Everybody's upset. Not only Frank."
Yesterday's loss featured the latest poor outing from right-hander Livan Hernandez, who needed 138 pitches -- more than anyone in baseball had thrown in a single start this season -- to suffer through 6 2/3 innings in which he allowed six runs, five of them earned. The last of those pitches came with two outs and the bases loaded in the seventh to Colorado right fielder Brad Hawpe, who had already touched Hernandez for a two-run homer in the second. This time, with Colorado up 4-0, Hawpe worked the count full, then fouled off three straight 3-2 pitches.
"I didn't want to throw a breaking ball and walk the guy," Hernandez said. So he came back with a fastball, and Hawpe sent it to right field for a two-run single, ending Hernandez's outing, driving his ERA up to 5.18 and dropping his record to 5-7.
Hawpe's at-bat, in a way, highlighted what Robinson felt was wrong with this entire series.
"Almost every [Colorado] hitter walked up to home plate in this series, and it was ball one, ball two," Robinson said. "And that's not the way to be successful pitching. You got to get ahead of hitters up here, finish them off and put them on the defensive."
Which is exactly how the Nationals appeared against Colorado right-hander Jason Jennings. With a day game after Wednesday night's 14-8 fiasco, Robinson sat many of his regulars, including second baseman Jose Vidro, right fielder Jose Guillen and shortstop Royce Clayton. The makeshift lineup managed six hits and an unearned run off Jennings over eight innings, and the Nationals didn't score until the game was well out of reach.
That the Nationals were swept by any team wouldn't have been a surprise, say, a month ago, because they began the season with 27 losses in their first 40 games and were on pace to lose 108 or 109 for the season. But when they took three of four from Philadelphia over last weekend, they pulled into a tie with Atlanta for third place in the National League East. The attitude coming in was sweep, not get swept.
"The way we've been playing, you wouldn't have thought it was the same guys out there" against the Rockies, Fick said. "At least we know we can play good. But it hurts now. It was a tough series for us."
It was tough, too, for Robinson. He said afterward that he hadn't given the Yankees much thought yet. RFK Stadium hasn't been sold out this season, but it will be extremely close all three games this weekend, and it could feel like a road series for the Nationals.
But in his office afterward, there were more significant problems than the Yankees or their fans. The problems were with Robinson's own team.
"They came out and pushed us back on our heels in the first game," Robinson said. "They kept pushing, and we kept going backwards. We would fight for maybe one or two innings, and they'd push us again, and we'd fall right back. They just pushed us around the field for most of the games."