By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 30, 2006
TORONTO, June 29 -- He didn't say it as if he was resigned to his team's fate, as if there was no hope at all. But Washington Manager Frank Robinson's response could only seem realistic given the Nationals' travails of the past two weeks. His team capped off a wretched road trip Thursday night with an 8-4 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays, one in which right-hander John Patterson exited with what he called a "dead arm" that generally mirrored the state of his team. Robinson was merely answering a question.
Can this group, which reaches the halfway point of the season Friday night at RFK Stadium, pull off the opposite of the 2005 Nationals, who rocketed to first place in the National League East after 81 games, only to plummet to last over a tumultuous second half?
"No," came Robinson's straight-forward response. "Last year, the first half, believe me, was magical. But again, there's nothing impossible. But to say we can do it? No.
"Can we go and turn it around and have a good second half? Yes."
Even that, though, seems far-fetched at this point, because as the Nationals reach the midpoint of their 162-game season, they are 14 games under .500, matching their low point on the season, and they are sleep-walking through uninspired games. Lose Friday against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and they will reach the midpoint on pace to drop 96 games.
The loss Thursday was their eighth on a nine-game trip that now has one redeeming quality: It's over. They were swept by the Blue Jays in dominating fashion, scoring five runs to Toronto's 20, falling behind in each game and never holding a lead, not even for half an inning. On the nine games of this trip -- a sweep in Boston, losing two of three in Baltimore, and the sweep here -- they were outscored by 30 runs.
"We've run into this American League East, and they're tough," catcher Robert Fick said of the Nationals' divisional matchup in interleague play. "It's one of the toughest divisions in baseball. When you got to play the Red Sox, Yankees and Blue Jays right in a row -- and the Orioles -- it can wear out your pitching staff."
The Blue Jays, in kind, wore out Patterson. The right-hander was making his second start since returning from the disabled list, where he spent two months with forearm tendinitis. His first outing in his return was encouraging, six innings in which he allowed one earned run in Baltimore. Yet from the moment he arrived on the mound Thursday night at Rogers Center, he said he could tell, "I wasn't quite right."
Given that, the results were predictable. He allowed a pair of two-out singles for a run in the first. He gave up back-to-back doubles leading off the second, and the Jays scored two runs in that frame. In the third, he allowed a two-run triple to Eric Hinske -- who fell a homer short of the cycle and drove in three runs -- and Toronto handed its ace, Roy Halladay, a 5-1 lead.
After the third, Nationals pitching coach Randy St. Claire asked Patterson how he felt.
"My arm feels dead," Patterson said he responded. St. Claire walked away. Patterson returned to the mound for the fourth, but even before he opened the inning, Fick went to the mound to talk to him.
"I knew something was wrong," Fick said. "He said his arm felt numb, but he could feel his fingers. He said, 'All right, well, let's go.' Obviously, he didn't want to come out of the game."
The issue of Patterson's health, though, is a touchy one within the Washington clubhouse. Since being a first-round draft choice in 1996, he has had a series of injuries, both major and minor, and he is conscious of his body, how he's feeling from one day to the next. The Nationals and Patterson made a joint decision to bring him back from the forearm ailment slowly despite the fact that General Manager Jim Bowden said, had the team been in a pennant race, Patterson would have been able to pitch without risk of further injury.
So when Patterson threw two pitches in the top of the fourth, and St. Claire and head athletic trainer Tim Abraham came out to get him, there could have been concerns not only about Patterson's arm, but about his resilience. Robinson nixed that.
"I know if John could go out there, he'd go out there," Robinson said. "I don't question it, and I hope no one else on this ballclub questions it."
Though Robinson said Patterson's next start was "absolutely" up in the air, Patterson downplayed the ailment.
"I don't think it's related to the tendinitis or whatever it was that I had," Patterson said. "It doesn't feel anything like that. It just feels like spring training dead arm. . . . We're going to see how I feel tomorrow. I plan on making my next start. I don't see why I wouldn't be able to."
Even with all that, the Nationals might have stayed in the game had relievers Bill Bray and Jon Rauch not allowed the Blue Jays three runs in the fifth and sixth. Marlon Anderson -- inserted at second base as part of a mild shakeup of the lineup from Robinson -- hit two titanic homers off Halladay, who the Nationals drove from the game with three consecutive doubles in the seventh.
All that did, however, was take this from blowout status and turn it into just another loss. The Nationals have 10 more games before the all-star break, each one at home, each one a small opportunity to prove to their manager that they can completely turn this around.