- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 24, 2005

These are critical times for the Washington Nationals, who have been treading water for the last month in a struggle to keep themselves afloat.

Unfortunately, every time they seem to come up for a breath of air, they proceed to sink even lower and make the task at hand all the more difficult.

Take last night’s 6-2 loss to the Cincinnati Reds, a lackluster showing before a testy RFK Stadium crowd of 35,656 that only knew half of what was really going on. As if the loss didn’t hurt the Nationals’ playoff chances enough, they learned after the game that two-fifths of their starting rotation might be sidelined with shoulder injuries.

Ryan Drese, who had been 0-5 with a 6.75 ERA over his last six starts, was placed on the 15-day disabled list after an MRI revealed right shoulder tendinitis. Then Tony Armas Jr. was forced to leave last night’s game after three innings with right shoulder trouble of his own.

The Nationals were still awaiting word on the results of Armas’ MRI, but he may not be far from a stint on the DL. The club recalled reliever Travis Hughes from Class AAA New Orleans to fill Drese’s roster spot, and more help could be on the way as manager Frank Robinson and general manager Jim Bowden search for someone they can count on.

“If you can’t count on someone now, you’ve got to just disable them,” Robinson said. “There’s no time to wait for people to recover now. We have to have somebody in who’s healthy. There’s people down there. I’m not saying they’re better than these guys up here, but they’re healthy. And to me, if you’re healthy, that makes you better than someone who’s hurting. I think they would have a better chance of getting people out.”

Of course, the best pitching in the world can’t overcome a lifeless offensive attack, which is just what Washington put up last night against Reds starter Luke Hudson, who began the game with a 7.35 ERA.

Returning to RFK after a season-long, 13-game road trip and confident in knowing that 25 of their last 38 games will be played at home, the Nationals (65-60) had every reason to come out in inspired fashion.

But a lineup that showed signs of breaking out over the weekend in New York was dominated by Hudson, who allowed two runs (solo homers by Vinny Castilla and Jose Guillen) and four hits over a career-high seven innings.

“This has been the whole season for us,” Castilla said. “We don’t score too many runs.”

The Nationals put together only one other legitimate scoring opportunity in the game — with runners on first and second and no outs in the fifth — yet proceeded to squander it like so many others before.

His club trailing 4-2 at the time, Robinson sent Jamey Carroll up to pinch-hit and decided to put the hit-and-run on. Carroll fouled off the first attempt, so Robinson called for a sacrifice bunt instead. Just one problem: Somewhere along the way from the manager to third-base coach Dave Huppert to Carroll, that bunt sign was mistakenly conveyed as the hit-and-run again.

So when Hudson fired a slider way outside of the strike zone, Carroll flung his bat out in desperation. He didn’t come close, and Castilla became an easy out at third base. Carroll wound up striking out, as did Ryan Church, ending the Nationals’ last best hope at the plate.

“It was a miscommunication as far as the sign was concerned,” Robinson said. “I’ll take the blame for that.”

Robinson wasn’t to blame for the performance of his starting pitcher, Armas, who cruised through the first two innings but allowed four runs and five hits in the third. He hit for himself in the bottom of the inning but departed after that while complaining of a sore shoulder.

This was nothing new for Armas (7-6), who has been dealing with shoulder issues all year — his first full season back from rotator cuff surgery — and has been wildly inconsistent along the way.

He clearly wasn’t at full-strength last night. The pitch he threw on Edwin Encarnacion’s home run was clocked at 83 mph. A slider, perhaps? No, it was Armas’ fastball, perhaps 10 mph slower than usual.

“You could tell his velocity wasn’t there like it was in the past,” catcher Brian Schneider said. “But I had no idea he was hurt.”

Armas’ early departure seemed to deflate Washington’s dugout. From that point on, it seemed inevitable the team would fall to 0-4 on the season against the sub-.500 Reds.

Given the direction things seem to be going, the Nationals better be careful lest they plummet to those same depths themselves.

“It’s time for somebody to get up,” second baseman Jose Vidro said. “The whole ballclub needs to show that it wants it. Right now, it doesn’t look it.”

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