Nationals' Woes Are 'Getting Very Sad'

Right fielder Reed Johnson scores in the fifth inning to give the Blue Jays a 3-0 lead at Rogers Center. The Nationals are 1-7 on their nine-game road trip.
Right fielder Reed Johnson scores in the fifth inning to give the Blue Jays a 3-0 lead at Rogers Center. The Nationals are 1-7 on their nine-game road trip. (By Frank Gunn -- Associated Press)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 29, 2006

TORONTO, June 28 -- If Frank Robinson had his way, 25 men would have walked out of the visitors' clubhouse at Rogers Center on Wednesday night with one purpose. They might have headed directly to their hotel rooms or out to grab a beer, but it didn't matter. With the Washington Nationals sliding toward a season that could be lost before the halfway point arrives, Robinson wanted those 25 men to end up in front of 25 mirrors, thinking about themselves and their team.

"We have to do some soul-searching," Robinson said. "Each player out there."

There are, Robinson said, no exceptions, and there were no objections to that message after the Nationals' listless 6-1 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays earlier in the evening. The Nationals, as they have been for this entire nine-game trek that mercifully ends Thursday, were out-hit, out-pitched, outplayed. The whole matter has them thinking about tossing aside the physical problems -- their mechanics, their aches and pains -- and thinking about, mentally, how they could possibly turn their season around.

"We got to concentrate better," said second baseman Jose Vidro, who served as the designated hitter Wednesday. "We got to find a way, find a way and really look deep into ourselves and do what we're supposed to do."

That the Nationals have now lost seven of eight games on this road trip would be bad enough. The style with which they're accomplishing it, however, had Robinson standing in front of his team afterward, delivering that message. It is time for accountability. It is time for changes. It is time for renewed energy, focus, commitment. This was not some "Kumbaya," embrace-your-brother love-in. This was an edict: Go home, think about what you do and return with a new attitude.

"Each individual is going to have to leave here tonight . . . and take a look in the mirror and say, 'What can I do, starting tomorrow, what can I bring to the ballpark to try to help this ballclub turn this thing around?' " Robinson said. " 'What am I capable of doing to help this ballclub?' And then, they're going to have to come out here and bring that energy and approach to the ballpark for nine innings. Not three or four. Not four or five. But for nine innings."

That was far from the case Wednesday night, when the Nationals succumbed to Blue Jays left-hander Ted Lilly and a pair of relievers. Robinson said afterward, unequivocally, that there would be lineup changes Thursday, and he might as well throw names in a hat and pull them out one by one. Until rookie third baseman Ryan Zimmerman doubled home a run in the eighth, the Nationals had been shut out for the first 16 innings since they arrived in Canada. By that point, the Blue Jays led 6-0, and each Washington at-bat appeared more maddening than the last.

"You can see, kind of, the frustration at the plate," Robinson said. "They look like they're kind of, not giving up, but like, 'What can I do?' "

As it turns out, very little. In the eight games of this road trip thus far -- through a three-game sweep in Boston, losing two of three in Baltimore and then dropping the first two here -- the Nationals have scored three or fewer runs seven times, and they are hitting a collective .234. In such an environment, little things become magnified, because no one picks his teammates up.

Take the top of the fifth. Marlon Byrd led off with a double in a game that -- thanks to Washington right-hander Shawn Hill, greeted by 80 family and friends from his nearby home town of Mississauga, Ontario -- was still scoreless. In an effort to start anything, Robinson asked catcher Brian Schneider to bunt.

"I've gotten the bunt down before," Schneider said. This time, though, he popped it up to Toronto catcher Bengie Molina, and the Nationals failed to score.

The Blue Jays got to Hill for four runs in the bottom of that frame, keyed by a two-run triple from Reed Johnson. Hill was done after the inning, and he said his surgically repaired elbow stiffened up a bit. "That's going to happen," Hill said.

But in the sixth, the Nationals had yet another chance when Nick Johnson and Zimmerman each singled with one out. That brought up right fielder Jose Guillen, who is going through offensive struggles he has never before endured. He managed only a weak pop fly to shortstop, and he tossed his bat to the ground in disgust before he headed to the dugout.

Byrd was next, and though he got ahead of Lilly 2-1, he took strike two to even the count. Then, looking for an inside fastball, he forced the issue. "That was me being aggressive," Byrd said.

He ended up swinging through a fastball around his eyes, the strikeout that ended what, these days, amounts to a threat for Washington. "It's getting very sad," Vidro said. "It's to the point where you can see the guys out there, the frustration, maybe trying to do a little bit more than what we're capable of doing."

There is that question, still lingering: What, exactly, are the Nationals capable of? Robinson is unsure. He knows, though, that he's going to try something different Thursday, a new lineup. Anything. What would those changes be? He held up his hand.

"Not yet," he said. "I got to go home and look in the mirror."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company