By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 23, 2007
MIAMI, April 22 -- Messages can be sent, even in out-of-the-way ballparks such as Dolphin Stadium, even when the eyes of the sporting public are placed in almost every other direction than on a matchup between the Washington Nationals and the Florida Marlins. Ryan Church learned just that, and on a long afternoon in which his team was beaten brutally, he got to consider it from the comfort of the wooden bench in the visiting dugout.
To those in the stands, Miguel Cabrera delivered the loudest message, an upper-deck homer off helpless Washington starter Jerome Williams that will be the lasting image from the 12-6 whipping Florida put on Washington.
There were others, too, and Williams's fourth start of the year turned into something of a public flogging. He allowed another upper-deck shot to Dan Uggla, who hit two homers and drove in six runs. He walked four batters. He gave up 10 runs in his six innings. His record dropped to 0-4, his ERA rose to 7.77.
"I don't want to even remember what happened these last four starts," Williams said. "I just want to flush that down the toilet and try to move forward."
But Williams might not have been the most embarrassed National on Sunday. That honor was reserved for Church, the center fielder.
Perhaps no National is off to as solid a start as Church, who has been forced to play center rather than left after an Opening Day injury to Nook Logan. But when Church led off the second inning against Florida right-hander Wes Obermueller -- just called up from Class AAA -- by grounding a ball to the right side, he headed down to first. The ball was fielded by Marlins first baseman Aaron Boone, who flipped to Obermueller to easily retire Church.
In the dugout, Nationals Manager Manny Acta was watching. Closely.
"He didn't even go past the bag," Acta said.
So it was Acta's turn to deliver a message. By the time Church got back to the dugout, Acta was telling outfielder Chris Snelling -- who had been given the day off -- to get ready. In the bottom of the second, Snelling took over in left, Robert Fick moved from left to right, Austin Kearns moved from right to center, and Church remained on the bench.
"I'm a very patient man when it comes down to things that you can't control," Acta said. "If you can't throw strikes or [commit] physical or mental errors, those sometimes you can't control. But when it comes down to effort or playing hard, I don't have patience for that. . . .
"When I see [Ryan] Zimmerman and I see Kearns and I see [Brian] Schneider and all those guys run the bases the way they do regardless of the score, I just can't tolerate stuff like that."
Church, who entered Sunday tied for the National League lead with eight doubles and was called a "savior" by Acta last week for the way he played center field, didn't dispute the move.
"He doesn't tolerate it," Church said. "I know I messed up. Got the message loud and clear."
Replays appeared to show Church wincing as he got to first base, and he said he had been battling a "little shin-split thing."
"But that's not an excuse," he said. "There are no excuses. Got to play hard. I played hard this whole season, giving everything, and just that one play got me. But I've learned from it."
Acta said there would be no further ramifications, and Church is almost certain to be in the lineup when the team plays again Tuesday in Philadelphia. But the clubhouse took note, just as the Nationals did last April, when then-manager Frank Robinson pulled star slugger Alfonso Soriano for not running out a pop-up.
"Nobody can do that," Zimmerman said. "Alex Rodriguez can't do that. Anybody can't do that. It's not just because of the team, it's because of the game."
Perhaps any National who had the option of participating in this game would have declined. Williams struggled mightily to put pitches in the proper location, but with a tattered bullpen, Acta had no alternative but to leave him in for six painful innings.
"He knew he was going to have to take it on the chin today, and he did," Acta said.
Normally, discussions of Paul Warfield are reserved for reminiscing about the great Miami Dolphins teams of the 1970s. But Warfield entered the discourse Sunday, because his name and No. 42 sit at the bottom of the upper deck as part of the Dolphins' "Ring of Honor." Cabrera's homer -- which came on a misplaced 0-2 fastball in the third -- sailed five rows beyond Warfield's name. Uggla followed in the fourth with a three-run shot two rows -- and a bit to the right -- of Warfield.
Both were messages from the Marlins to the Nationals, who fell behind 10-0 and only pulled within six runs on Zimmerman's ninth-inning grand slam. But the most significant message came from the first-year manager in a blowout ballgame that he likely wants to forget.
"If we're going to lose, we're going to play hard," Acta said. "That's not going to be tolerated."