- The Washington Times - Monday, July 25, 2005

One by one, they came to the plate with a chance to make something happen and give the Washington Nationals a much-needed victory.

And one by one, they swung from their heels, taking dead aim at RFK Stadium’s distant fences in a hopeless attempt to win yesterday’s game in one fell swoop.

Frank Robinson and Tom McCraw, however, know that’s not how to win ballgames, certainly not this team and certainly not in this ballpark. The only way the Nationals are going to break out of an offensive funk that is fast approaching a month is by overhauling their entire approach at the plate.

As McCraw, Washington’s hitting coach, said following yesterday’s excruciating 4-1, 14-inning loss to the Houston Astros: “Guys are trying to hit the ball too … hard.”

The outer edges of the scorebook — which were necessary for this marathon — showed the Nationals losing the game on .164-hitter Eric Bruntlett’s three-run homer off Hector Carrasco with two outs in the 14th.

But no one in Washington’s clubhouse yesterday evening placed any blame on Carrasco or any other pitcher for the club’s 10th loss in 13 games. The blame was placed squarely on the shoulders of an offense that produced a measly four hits off five Houston pitchers, one in the game’s final nine innings.

“The offense was nonexistent,” Robinson said. “Nonexistent.”

It didn’t help matters that the Nationals played the extra innings without the services of their best hitter, Jose Guillen, who fell to the ground in a heap after getting hit by a Dan Wheeler fastball in the right wrist. Guillen immediately was taken to the hospital for X-rays. They came back negative, and club officials are hoping the injury is no more severe than a deep bruise.

At the very least, Robinson expects Guillen to miss tomorrow’s game in Atlanta, the opener of a huge three-game series with the Braves, who remain tied with Washington for first place after losing yesterday to the Diamondbacks. Guillen may not make it back for any part of the series, and if a broken bone is discovered in a follow-up exam in coming days, the Nationals could find themselves without their best player for some time.

“Thank God [the X-ray was] negative,” outfielder Ryan Church said. “I’ve never seen him like that, in that much pain.”

The pain Guillen felt from getting plunked for the 13th time this year might have paled in comparison to the pain he would have felt watching his teammates finish out this game. It was almost sheer torture for the crowd of 39,203 at RFK, the few who remained until the bitter end pleading with the home club to make something happen.

It never did. Aside from Gary Bennett’s fifth-inning RBI single off Astros rookie Wandy Rodriguez, the Nationals had zero clutch hits. They didn’t have too many opportunities, either, though they blew a golden one in the eighth in embarrassingly inept fashion.

With runners on the corners and nobody out, Washington needed only one medium-depth fly ball to take the lead. But Brian Schneider, pinch-hitting for Cristian Guzman, grounded out and left Marlon Byrd stranded on third. Church, called on to pinch-hit for starter John Patterson, then tried to check swing on a 1-0 breaking ball from Chad Qualls and wound up tapping it meekly back to the mound for the second out.

“I just brain-[cramped] and left my barrel out there,” Church said. “I just didn’t really focus right there, and I wasn’t able to get my bat out of the way. … I messed up. I was in the perfect situation to end the game.”

Moments later, Brad Wilkerson struck out with a mighty swing on a 3-2 pitch after opening the at-bat ahead 2-0 in the count. In the dugout, Patterson grabbed his jacket and stormed back through the tunnel to the clubhouse, another brilliant start (eight innings, career-high 10 strikeouts, no walks) wasted.

“No outs, first and third — I thought for sure we were going to get that run in,” he said. “When it didn’t happen, it just seemed to really knock the wind out of the team.”

This, of course, was nothing new for Patterson. He has 12 no-decisions in 18 starts, and despite posting a 1.58 ERA over his last six outings has just one win to show for it. Even the one run he surrendered yesterday wasn’t his fault. Byrd misplayed Lance Berkman’s deep fly ball in the sixth into a double, and Berkman wound up scoring two batters later on a sacrifice fly.

“The ball wasn’t where I thought it was going to be,” Byrd said. “If I take just a little better path to the ball, it would have dropped right down to me.”

And if the Nationals came through with any semblance of an offensive attack, Byrd’s miscue wouldn’t have mattered. That’s not the way things are going right now for Washington, though. Despite the constant imploring of Robinson and McCraw for a better approach to hitting, the message simply isn’t getting through. The Nationals are batting a collective .170 since the All-Star break and not surprisingly have gone 3-8 since then.

They will try to clear their minds today before departing for Atlanta, where perhaps their biggest games of the year await. They may have cleanup hitter Nick Johnson back by then, but as Robinson points out, this team’s problems run far deeper than one injured player.

“Something is missing with this ballclub right now,” Robinson said. “Whatever it is, we’ve got to try to figure out what it is. But something’s missing. This is not the same ballclub that played most of the first half.”

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