By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 24, 2006
MIAMI, Aug. 23 -- The door to the visiting manager's office at Dolphin Stadium swung open late Wednesday night, and the entire coaching staff of the Washington Nationals marched in. There, they met General Manager Jim Bowden, blue blazer on his back, a piercing gaze emanating from his eyes. These are not happy times around the Nationals, who have all but embarrassed themselves in the midst of a nine-game road trip. And following another poorly pitched, poorly played loss to the Florida Marlins -- this one by 9-7 after an early seven-run deficit -- Bowden needed to be heard.
"We're all frustrated, really, the way we've been playing here on this road trip," Manager Frank Robinson said, still standing in his uniform 35 minutes after the latest debacle. "It's not fun. It's not enjoyable. And it just kind of built up tonight. Just let it out, and get it out of our system, and hopefully we can get this thing straightened out, turned around."
At this point, that task is akin to turning around a cruise ship in a phone booth. The Nationals entered the evening leading the majors in errors -- and committed three more. They came in needing a gutsy, competitive effort from right-hander Tony Armas Jr. -- and he couldn't make it out of the second inning. They needed to finally get some hits with runners in scoring position -- and they went 2 for 12. They needed to pitch with savvy to Miguel Cabrera, the Marlins' best hitter, and he went 3 for 4 with two homers -- including the 100th of his career, making him, at 23 and change, the sixth-youngest player to reach that level.
Thus, the Nationals lost their fifth straight and fell a season-worst 19 games below .500. There are four teams in baseball with worse records than Washington. But anyone who watched the first six games of this trip -- which ends with a three-game set in Atlanta over the weekend -- would be hard-pressed to figure out how.
"You don't want to lose, but you can accept good losses," Robinson said. "Ugly losses, bad losses, sloppy losses, they're just unacceptable. They wear on your nerves, and you get frustrated."
These losses have not been good ones. Shortstop Felipe Lopez committed two errors, giving him three in the last two games. But he is not alone. Washington has 12 errors during this five-game losing streak, miscues made in all manner, shape and form.
"If I knew how to fix it, I would," said Lopez, who leads all major league shortstops with 24 errors. "It's frustrating. I get frustrated every time I make an error."
But the most frustrating part of the evening was Armas. The Nationals fielded a makeshift lineup Robinson designed to give some of his regulars a two-day break with Thursday's scheduled off day. Most of the fans in the tiny crowd at Dolphin Stadium surely couldn't have named the Washington starters.
Henry Mateo, a utility man called up from the minors Tuesday, played for Ryan Zimmerman at third, his first major league appearance at the position, and he hit his first big league homer. Bernie Castro, a career minor leaguer, subbed for Jose Vidro at second. Brandon Harper, a 30-year-old who is getting his first chance in the majors after spending eight seasons in the minors, was the catcher in place of Brian Schneider, who is still overcoming a bruised toe. Daryle Ward, with one start and just 18 total innings at first base this season, replaced Nick Johnson there, and hit a three-run homer in the ninth, trimming the deficit.
As unlikely as it was for that crew to win, it actually seized a 1-0 lead in the first on Alex Escobar's run-scoring double. Armas gave the lead back to the Marlins in exactly six pitches. He faced the entire Marlins' lineup in the first and allowed three runs. He did the same in the second, allowing a two-run homer to Cabrera and finishing off his night by giving up a two-run single to the opposing pitcher, lefty Scott Olsen.
And with a slew of scouts in the stands, many noting that Armas is a free agent after this season, he gave them nothing positive to report. He left trailing 8-1, having allowed 10 hits, pushing his ERA to 5.05. It was, in some ways, vintage Armas, woefully inconsistent. He was asked how he could change that pattern, glimpses of brilliance sprinkled amidst disasters.
"I don't know, actually," he said. "I guess I've got to get used to it. I've been two years up and down. It's not an excuse. I think I got to get used to it, going out there and competing more. I'm the only one that really can do it. Nobody's going to do it for me."
Robinson pointed out that on this trip, each of his veteran starters -- Armas, Ramon Ortiz and Pedro Astacio -- failed to get out of the third inning, posting an ungodly combined ERA of 32.06.
"They've been horrible," Robinson said. He searched for another word, but couldn't come up with one, so he went back to the well. "Horrible."
The coaching staff emerged from Robinson's office after about 10 minutes, and staff members described Bowden as "frustrated" and "irritated." Bowden remained behind closed doors with Robinson for 15 more minutes. The greaseboard outside the office laid out the Nationals' schedule. Bags were to be packed by 10:50 p.m., and the bus departed for the airport at 11. Bowden emerged at 10:46, and did not comment.
He didn't need to. The Nationals' play said everything.