For Armas and Nats, Latest Loss Is the Status Woe

Nats catcher Brian Schneider pulls up as Ryan Zimmerman scoops up a bunt by Phillies pitcher Brett Myers.
Nats catcher Brian Schneider pulls up as Ryan Zimmerman scoops up a bunt by Phillies pitcher Brett Myers. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 30, 2006

It is, by now, a rerun, seen as often as old episodes of "Seinfeld" or "M*A*S*H." Tony Armas takes the mound. He throws enough pitches in the first inning to get some men through three. And he leaves -- head down, body limp -- before the Washington Nationals have reached the middle of the game. There is no punch line, no laugh track. There is only misery.

"I can't say anything that hasn't already been said," Manager Frank Robinson said late last night after watching Armas's latest episode. "I don't know how many ways I can say it. He's just not giving us the performance we are counting on him to give us."

And because of that, the Nationals seem to have little chance on every fifth day, when Armas's turn comes up. Last night's 10-6 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies at RFK Stadium began with an excruciating, 36-pitch first inning for Armas, one that established a grinding rhythm for a 3-hour 30-minute game that was Washington's eighth loss in its last nine outings. It featured a monstrous three-run homer from Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard -- the 48th homer of Howard's season, tying the franchise record set by Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt in 1980 -- as well as a failed Nationals' comeback in the ninth, which they entered trailing by six runs but ended with the tying run on deck.

Armas established the tone in an outing that lasted 3 1/3 innings, in which he gave up eight hits and allowed five runs. He is now 1-5 with a 9.00 ERA in his last seven starts, and no National League pitcher with more than 20 starts -- basically, anyone who has been healthy and in the majors for most of the year -- averages more than Armas's 18 pitches per inning.

Put in the tape, rewind, hit play -- and then start again. Chronic shoulder problems are behind him. He is healthy. He has potential. Yet he can't find any level of consistency.

"It's tough, man," Armas said. "I've been waiting two years for this, to feel the way I'm feeling right now. Things are not going my way. Mentally, it gets to you. Like I said last time, I'm the only one that can fix this. Nobody's going to do this for me."

That much is true, and it's quite possible that if Armas ever does fix it, he will do so with another club. Before the game, Robinson mused on Armas's struggles in his eight seasons with the Montreal-Washington franchise. Robinson has been in the game more than half a century, and he has seen players who just can't figure it out with one team, who need to go somewhere else to flourish. That would fit into the Nationals' plans, because if Armas -- whose $2.1 million contract expires after this season -- would sign with another team in the offseason, the Nationals could receive a draft pick as compensation, further helping rebuild their farm system.

"Sometimes, you're with a ballclub, you come up through the organization, you're at the major league level with a ballclub for 'X' number of years, and they keep waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting," Robinson said. "And sooner or later, they say, 'It's time to go in another direction.' "

Last night's game might have gone in another direction if not for the sixth inning. After Armas allowed Pat Burrell's two-run single in the first -- a slider Armas said Burrell hit off the end of the bat -- and Mike Lieberthal's two-run homer in the fourth, Washington came back. Alfonso Soriano hit his 42nd homer, a solo shot in the third, and Ryan Zimmerman -- who broke out of a slump by going 4 for 5 with three RBI -- laced a two-run triple in the fifth, pulling the Nationals within 5-3.

Yet Robinson, faced with a bullpen full of unsavory choices, went to right-hander Kevin Gryboski, called up from Class AAA New Orleans over the weekend. Gryboski has struggled in his major league appearances, and Robinson had both Saul Rivera and Chris Schroder -- reasonably successful alternatives -- available.

"It's not that simple," Robinson said. "You have pitchers coming up here. You have pitchers that haven't pitched. You have pitchers that you feel like are right for the situation. . . . Schroder or Rivera? Maybe. But is there a guarantee that either one of them is going to do the job? No."

The Phillies pecked at Gryboski -- getting one run on a pair of infield singles, an error on first baseman Nick Johnson and a bouncing ball up the middle -- and then Howard did the job. He crushed Gryboski's 2-2 pitch to the mezzanine level just to the right of straightaway center, the fourth straight game in which he has homered. Howard, one of baseball's hottest hitters, can be retired, mostly on pitches down and inside. But make a mistake, and the results are likely to be as they were against Gryboski.

"He doesn't make you pay with a single or a double," Nationals catcher Brian Schneider said. "He makes you pay by hitting the ball a long, long way."

With that, the Nationals were down 9-3, fighting uphill again. "Once you get down a lot early," Zimmerman said, "it's tough."

It was tough again last night, and the comeback attempt ended with runners on second and third and Jose Vidro striking out swinging in the ninth. Once removed, Armas sat on the bench alone, and occasionally buried his head in his hands. He talked about how he still believes he can reach his potential.

"If you put your head down, that's it," he said. "You might as well quit."

With that, he walked out of the clubhouse, wondering if the rerun of this episode will play in five more days.

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