By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 28, 2006
ATLANTA, Aug. 27 -- The thought of a pennant race has long since fizzled. Injured players have filtered out of the clubhouse, their seasons ended prematurely. On Sunday, the Washington Nationals lost another difficult-to-digest game, a 13-6 decision to the Atlanta Braves, meekly wrapping up an interminable trip that included seven losses in eight outings, ensuring they will wake up Monday morning in last place in the National League East for the 61st consecutive day.
Yet before this loss that looked like so many of the 74 others -- one in which starter Billy Traber, the victim of a couple of dropped balls, recorded eight outs and allowed eight earned runs, one in which Atlanta's Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones and Jeff Francoeur hit home runs -- General Manager Jim Bowden made it clear that the actions of each of his players are being monitored. The idea that these are meaningless series, games, innings or at-bats is nonsense, Bowden said.
"It tells you about players' character," he said. "It tells you about their soul, and certainly helps their chances for next year. When you show heart, character and soul the last month of the year, it goes a long way -- especially with a team in last place, like ours."
Throughout the nine-game trip, Manager Frank Robinson didn't question his team's effort. "You go out and do the best you can," he said Saturday.
But if this is the best the Nationals can do, there will be much soul-searching over the final 32 games. Their starting pitching was simply hammered on this trip. Throw in Traber's outing of 2 2/3 innings on Sunday, and the rotation's ERA over the last eight games ballooned to a whopping 13.02. Five times in that span of just more than a week, Washington's starter has failed to make it out of the third inning, something that happened seven times all of last season . Only three bullpens in the National League have logged more innings than the Nationals' relief pitchers.
Traber -- who already has a stated goal of "eating innings" -- stepped into that environment Sunday. Yet in the Braves' six-run third, the damage might have been minimized. First baseman Daryle Ward dove to make a play to start the inning, but couldn't cleanly transfer the ball from his glove, and Tony Peña Jr. was safe. Ryan Church got a poor jump on Edgar Renteria's shot to center two batters later, and it fell for a two-run double. And with two outs, shortstop Henry Mateo tracked Brian McCann's popup behind third base, got a glove on it, but it fell anyway, a play that was ruled a double. Two batters later, Adam LaRoche laced a bases-loaded double, the Braves took a 8-4 lead, and Traber was done.
"It's a disappointment for me," Traber said. "Obviously, I'm aware of it, and I'm aware of how much we've burned out our pen. It's disappointing for me not to go out there and . . . go deep into the ballgame."
He couldn't do it Sunday, and the bullpen didn't do much better, allowing five more runs. Washington's ERA is now 5.02, last in the NL.
"It kind of puts you in, I guess, a defensive mode," Robinson said. "You're always scraping, and you know you have to score 10, 12 runs to win. . . . When you look up, and we have to score 10, 12 runs to win, we're not going to win too many."
Last year, when the Nationals' pitching staff was more solid -- from starters Livan Hernandez, John Patterson and Esteban Loaiza to key relievers Hector Carrasco, Gary Majewski and Luis Ayala, none of whom are on the current staff -- Washington scored five runs 56 times, and lost just nine of those games. The message was clear: If they scored, they would win.
Not so in 2006, when they have scored five or more 62 times and already lost 18 of those games, including four on this trip alone.
The hope, then, lies with the offense, and Sunday it fell to Alfonso Soriano, who went 4 for 5 with three doubles and, more significantly, two steals. One focus over the final five weeks will be Soriano's pursuit of his 40th steal, because he would become just the fourth player in history with 40 homers and 40 stolen bases in the same season.
Soriano has 41 homers and 34 steals, but this could become something of a meaningless pursuit, particularly if Soriano runs as he did Sunday. He made a puzzling attempt to swipe third in the fourth, when the Nationals trailed 8-4 with two outs. The benefit of stealing on third in that situation is, by the book, outweighed by the risk of being thrown out. Soriano barely beat the throw from catcher Brian McCann. He admitted he would be more aggressive in pursuit of 40-40.
"Now I have to think about it, because now, we not play like we're supposed to play," he said. "That's going to be a very good number, personal for me. I like to run. Now I have a reason why I have to run."
The Nationals, according to Bowden, have a reason they have to play, and the players in the clubhouse Sunday agreed.
"I think we're playing for a lot," Church said. "Myself, I'm playing for next year. That's how I feel."
Which is what Bowden wants to hear. No job is safe. Everyone is under evaluation.
"You want guys that are going to give 100 percent for 162 games, regardless of where you are in the standings," he said. "It's a gut-check."