Mets 5, Nationals 2
The pennant race was probably over for the Nationals last weekend in San Diego, but a sense of finality lingered over RFK Stadium last night. Manager Frank Robinson slumped in a chair at his pregame news conference resigned to the fact that the last few games of the season are merely for the vanity of a .500 season.
He shrugged. There were five people in the room to listen to him yesterday, and after the buzz of the new team and first place, when Robinson's news conferences were often standing-room only events, the session seemed awkward. There was no banter, no joking, none of the one-liners for which Robinson became famous this year.
Instead, he forced a wan smile four hours before his team lost, 5-2, to the Mets. And despite still being alive for the wild card by the faintest of hope, he pulled the curtain on the season.
Third baseman Vinny Castilla will not play anymore this year. Neither will catcher Brian Schneider, reliever Luis Ayala and closer Chad Cordero. Each move makes perfect sense: Castilla has been bothered by a knee injury, Schneider's throwing shoulder hasn't been right in months and Ayala and Cordero are considered pieces too valuable to use in meaningless games.
And while not wholly unexpected, word had not trickled to all the players involved. When Schneider was asked before the game about his season's premature end, he looked stunned and immediately headed toward Robinson's office. An hour later, after batting practice, he calmed down and even seemed resigned, much like his manager.
"I was a little shocked," he admitted. "Obviously if I went in there and was irate and said 'I can play,' [Robinson would relent]. But I honestly can't go in there and say 'I can play.' "
His shoulder is sore and has been since the middle of summer. An MRI exam a few weeks ago showed only inflammation and while he hasn't had another MRI in recent days, it seems the only prescription for him is rest. The same seems to be true for the 38-year-old Castilla, whose numbers declined steadily as the season wore on. He said this was a result of his knee, which began to hurt around midseason and got so bad he was unable to generate much power from his swing.
"Why [keep playing]?" he asked yesterday. "I'm hurt."
Robinson originally planned to sit more players this week as well. He talked to an aching Jose Guillen about resting his sore ankle, shoulder and hamstring, but Guillen said he wanted to play at least a couple of games so he will be in the lineup sometime. So too will outfielder Brad Wilkerson, who was in so much pain this season that he would often wear two or three ice packs at a time after games. He too asked Robinson to play a few more innings.
First baseman Nick Johnson's heel has been sore, but he has asked to be used and Robinson obliged. Last night, Johnson pinch-hit in the ninth inning and made the last out of the game on a fly ball to center.
Robinson even talked to outfielder Preston Wilson about sitting out, but Wilson, a free agent at year's end, wants to reach 90 RBI. He has 84 now.
"I can respect that," Robinson said.
So it was a shell of the team that stormed through May and June that took the field last night. Brandon Watson was in left, Cristian Guzman was batting second and the first baseman was Tony Blanco, the team's Rule 5 draft pick, who played the position yesterday like he won the job in a lucky fan contest. In the first inning, just after Watson dove for and missed a fly ball that turned into a double, Blanco dropped a simple throw from pitcher Livan Hernandez on a sacrifice bunt, putting two men on with nobody out. This helped set up David Wright's grand slam home run that put Washington behind 5-0 before an out could be recorded.
Later in the game, Blanco dropped a routine throw from the shortstop Guzman, but by then Hernandez was in a groove, sailing through the Mets lineup, allowing just three hits after the first and so Blanco's second error was not costly. Though it was clear Robinson had seen enough. When asked after the game to assess Blanco's defense, the manager said curtly, "Next question."
Once again it seemed the only thing worth talking about, the only thing to look forward to, is third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, the team's top draft pick. Before the game, Robinson said Zimmerman would be the one National to play every day the rest of the season. While most of that time will be spent at third, Robinson said Zimmerman could also play a few innings at shortstop.
Zimmerman then went 3 for 4 against New York pitcher Tom Glavine, lining two singles and a double to raise his average to .483. In a game in which the only other hits were a Watson single and a Hernandez triple that came when Mets right fielder Marlon Anderson overran the pitcher's line drive, it was an impressive outing.
Only Robinson, wearied from a long year, hardly seemed in the mood to discuss it.
"What is this? The daily Zimmerman report?" he asked sarcastically, then paused looking for his first one-liner of the day.
"He's a first-ballot Hall of Famer," Robinson said.
But before Zimmerman can pose for his bust in Cooperstown, the Nationals have to get through the last week of a year in which they were once the story of baseball. By last night, first place seemed so long ago. There was only a chilly breeze and the realization that the long, wild run had come to an end at last.