By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 10, 2006
DENVER, Sept. 9 -- They met deep into Friday night, tossing around ideas about what plagued them, about why they were throwing away balls, missing cut-off men, letting a lousy season become downright unseemly. After that therapy session, the Washington Nationals arrived Saturday at Coors Field saying they would focus on the details, that they would finish the season strong.
Yet the larger picture, in this case, can outweigh all the counseling, because the Nationals have been a sloppy team since spring training, and at this point, they can't just turn the spigot to "Off." With that, they followed up their six-error catastrophe on Friday with two more errors on Saturday, part of a 9-5 loss to the Colorado Rockies, their third straight on this penultimate road trip of the year.
"We have meetings all the time," right-hander Ramon Ortiz said. "We play the same way."
Ortiz, who nearly threw a no-hitter earlier in the week, was rocked for seven runs -- though, in true Nationals' fashion, only five of them were earned. Colorado left fielder Matt Holliday tagged Ortiz for a two-run homer and then broke a tie with a two-run single in the bottom of the seventh, and Rockies second baseman Jamey Carroll -- the former National -- continued to torture his old teammates by reaching base five times, making him 14 for 31 (.452) against Washington this season.
Thus the Rockies, the last-place team in the National League West, have won all seven matchups with the Nationals, last in the NL East since June 29. That, really, is the difference between the teams. The Rockies are 10 games under .500 and, until the last month, were factors in the wild-card race. The Nationals are 20 games under .500 and haven't had a realistic conversation about playoffs since long before the all-star break. But take away the series between the two teams, and the Nationals' winning percentage would be .452, the Rockies' .437.
"Look at the way the team plays right now," Ortiz said. "We play good at home. Now, on the road, nothing's coming together. It's very tough."
Which is the reason why, after Friday's 11-8 debacle, Manager Frank Robinson decided to pull up a chair and sat down with his team.
"The message was, overall, 'Let's be a little more aware, a little more alert, communicate better, focus on what we have to do,' " Robinson said. He wanted it to be positive, he said.
"There's no reason to be angry. When somebody's down, there's no reason to jump on them. . . . The physical errors are not intentional. It's just that they shouldn't happen."
Several players -- including second baseman Jose Vidro, catcher Robert Fick and Ortiz -- spoke up during the meeting, which lasted more than an hour and was something of a therapy session, an attempt to get players and staff members to talk about why things had gone so horribly awry.
"We were playing good ball before we came here," said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who made his third error in two nights Saturday. "It's the mental mistakes. You can't make mental mistakes. The physical things, you can't do much about that. They're going to happen. It's just doing little things right, both pitching and hitting."
It is long past a crucial moment in the season for the Nationals, who would have to sweep their 20 remaining games to match last season's even 81-81 record. "You can't save the season in three weeks," Robinson said.
With that heart-to-heart as the backdrop, Ortiz took the mound, his first start since taking a no-hitter into the ninth against the St. Louis Cardinals on Monday in Washington. There was no such flirtation Saturday. Carroll led off the game with a hit, and by the end of the first, Ortiz had allowed an RBI single to Garrett Atkins and Holliday's two-run homer, putting Colorado up, 3-1.
The Nationals came back, and Alfonso Soriano's solo homer in the fourth tied the game at 3. It could have been a moment of celebration, for it was Soriano's 45th homer of the year -- breaking the Expos/Nationals' franchise record set by Vladimir Guerrero in 2000. Next up: Frank Howard's Washington record of 48, set with the 1969 Senators.
"It's a nice achievement," Robinson said. "But a lot of stuff is hollow in the season we're having."
So with one out in the fifth, shortstop Felipe Lopez ranged to his left to snare a ball hit by Carroll. He threw off-balance on a hop, and first baseman Nick Johnson couldn't make the scoop. Lopez was charged with his 26th error -- a total that is tied for the most by a major league shortstop -- and two batters later, Atkins blasted a two-run homer to center, giving Colorado a 5-3 lead.
So, once again, the Nationals were forced to come back, scoring two in the sixth on Lopez's double and a groundout by Zimmerman. But Ortiz lost it in the seventh. He allowed a leadoff single to pinch hitter Kaz Matsui, and when Carroll tried to move him over with a bunt, catcher Fick pounced on the ball and threw to second.
"They're taught to get the sure out," Robinson said.
Fick's throw, though, drew Lopez off the bag, and the Rockies had two men on and nobody out. Three batters later, Holliday came up against reliever Chris Schroder, who put his 1-2 pitch down and in, "right where I wanted," he said. But Holliday got his bat on it and grounded it up the middle, the two-run single that won the game.
They are, then, probably done meeting for the year. All that is left to do is play the last 20 games -- and hope.
"I don't know, man," Ortiz said. "It's crazy."