- The Washington Times - Monday, August 1, 2005

Every day Frank Robinson hears the question, from fans, from members of the media, sometimes from his own coaches and players.

“When are you going to shake up your starting lineup?”

And not a day goes by in which the Washington Nationals manager doesn’t take at least a few minutes to ponder possible changes to a lineup that has produced the fewest runs in baseball. It’s a ritual that wears on Robinson perhaps more than anything else these days.

“Sometimes, when you’re going the way we’re going, you’re like a juggler,” he said. “If you start taking people in and out of that lineup, those guys are going to start saying, ‘Now he’s lost faith in me, he’s not giving me a chance to hit my way out of this.’ If you stick with it too long like we are, people say, ‘Why don’t you do something?’

“Where is that answer? Where is that fine balance of when to do it and when not to do it? That’s the thing you ask yourself each day when you make out that lineup.”

For the better part of four months, Robinson’s scale has tilted solidly in the direction of stability. The Nationals have used 76 different lineups in 105 games, but most of the changes have been a result of injury, not enterprise on Robinson’s part.

Aside from a couple of rare, altered looks, the 69-year-old manager inevitably has come up with the same starting eight (or some mild variation of it): Brad Wilkerson, Jose Vidro, Jose Guillen, Nick Johnson, Preston Wilson, Vinny Castilla, Brian Schneider and Cristian Guzman.

Seven of those players were the Nationals’ projected starters from the first day of spring training. The other (Wilson) was acquired three weeks ago to fill a void in the heart of the order and play every day.

“Your starters are on your ballclub for a reason,” Robinson said.

Even if several of them are suffering through miserable seasons at the plate.

General manager Jim Bowden has said more than once in recent weeks that he believes the Nationals, despite their 56-49 record — and trailing the Atlanta Braves by 41/2 games in the National League East — going into the start of a three-game series tonight with the Los Angeles Dodgers, are underachieving this year. And on a player-by-player basis, Bowden’s probably right. Aside from Guillen (.301 average, 19 homers, 58 RBI), Johnson (.319-9-45) and perhaps Schneider (.279-7-30), none of Washington’s regulars are performing at or above their projected levels.

Moreover, several players like Guzman (.186-3-13) and Castilla (.246-6-45) are performing astonishingly below their typical levels.

Common sense would tell a manager that it’s perhaps time to shake things up, time to bench Guzman, Castilla and others in favor of Jamey Carroll, Carlos Baerga or someone else who might inject some life into the stagnant offense. Nationals fans at RFK Stadium and on Internet message boards have been imploring Robinson for weeks to cut the cord on Guzman, who before going 2-for-2 on Sunday in Florida was batting a paltry .050 (2-for-40) since the All-Star break.

Through it all, the manager has remained true to the shortstop. And to those who can’t fathom why he has shown this kind of loyalty to Guzman, Robinson has several answers.

There’s truly no viable alternative (Carroll is hitting just .238 and has generally struggled when he plays for extended stretches). Guzman would be virtually useless coming off the bench, leaving Robinson with an even-thinner group of reserves. And psychologically, a permanent benching could shatter whatever scraps of confidence remain inside the head of a player who is under contract with the Nationals for three more years.

Like it or not, Guzman figures to regularly be in Washington’s starting lineup through the rest of the season. Ditto for other struggling hitters like Wilson, Castilla and Wilkerson.

“Look at these guys. These guys have been regulars [their whole careers],” Robinson said. “And then all of a sudden you sit them for some amount of time. Say you put [rookie Ryan] Church in the lineup. He is not going to go 4-for-4. He might, but if he doesn’t do it that day, what do we do, take him out and put the other guy back in? Do you go to Church for three or four days? Now he starts to get hot, and this other guy has been sitting over there [on the bench] for four days — when does he go back in? You think he’s going to sit there for a week or two? No. He’d say, ‘I want out of here. Get me out of here.’ Any of the guys would say that.”

Such is the dilemma Robinson faces every day when he wakes up. Perhaps one of these mornings, he’ll have an epiphany and decide to do something drastic. Perhaps he won’t.

It’s all part of the job.

“It’s a fine balance,” he said. “When do you do it? I don’t know if anybody has that answer.”

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