- The Washington Times - Friday, July 29, 2005

ATLANTA — His Washington Nationals had just been swept by the Atlanta Braves when Frank Robinson was asked whether he thinks there’s a significant difference between these two clubs.

“No, there’s not,” he said. “If there was, they would have run us off the field, and we wouldn’t have had a chance. We had a chance to win each one of these ballgames ourselves. They were just the best team this series, that’s all.”

Robinson may be correct in his assessment. After all, the Nationals lost all three games by one run, the latest coming by a score of 5-4 yesterday at Turner Field.

But there’s a reason the Braves won these three crucial games and the Nationals didn’t. They got consistent starting pitching in each game and clutch hits from almost everyone in the lineup, including unlikely hero Jeff Francoeur, who homered twice yesterday.

The Nationals got good starting pitching the previous two nights, but Ryan Drese surrendered four runs (three earned) in four innings yesterday. They got a couple more clutch hits (Jose Guillen’s sixth-inning single and Jose Vidro’s seventh-inning homer) than they had in recent days but still not enough to pull this one out. And they again killed themselves with blunders in the field and on the bases.

“What’s happening right now is what they used to do to the Expos,” Vidro said. “They just came back late in the game to beat us.”

Because of all that, the Nationals (55-47) left town three games back in the National League East, a division they controlled only a few weeks ago.

“Right now, we don’t even look like a big-league team,” Guillen said following his club’s 15th loss in 19 games. “This team looks like a Double-A team the way we’re playing. There’s no excuse for the way we’re playing. I agree with Frank 100 percent. We just look like we want to play nine innings and go home. … There’s no reason for us to get swept in here. It’s not acceptable.”

Never afraid to hold back his true feelings, Guillen was the center of attention for several reasons yesterday, not the least of which was his take-out slide of third baseman Chipper Jones in the sixth inning.

Guillen, who was gunned down easily on Vinny Castilla’s sacrifice bunt attempt, went hard into third to try to make sure there was no chance at a double play. Jones toppled over and afterward said Guillen’s spikes tore a hole through his pants and sliding shorts — Jones called it “instant air conditioning in my crotch.”

Guillen immediately made sure Jones was all right and offered an apology, but Jones was still seething an hour later about what he felt was a dirty play.

“I thought it was uncalled for,” Jones said. “Obviously, he felt like it was dirty. If he felt the need to apologize, then I don’t know why he’s saying it was a clean play.”

Told what Jones said about him, Guillen fired right back.

“I apologized to him,” he said. “I tried to be nice because he is one of the nicest guys in baseball. … If you want to be a dirty player, I can be that way, too. … Next time it happens, I’ll go even harder.”

Castilla’s unsuccessful sacrifice attempt represented one of several missed scoring opportunities for the Nationals, who stranded seven men, grounded into a double play and ran themselves into another out. Despite that, they put themselves in position to pull off a late rally, thanks to Vidro’s two-run homer off Jim Brower in the seventh.

But Washington stranded the tying run on third in the eighth, when pinch-hitter Ryan Church struck out swinging at a low-and-outside slider from left-hander Macay McBride, then went down in the order in the ninth against closer Chris Reitsma.

Thus, the Nationals were dealt their ninth straight one-run loss after going 24-7 in those tight contests in the season’s first half.

“They’ve been talking about the law of averages,” Robinson said. “Mr. Law is on the loss side right now. We’ve got to keep Mr. Law out of here.”

But is it the law of averages that’s causing the Nationals to lose the kind of games they used to seize control of, or is there more to it?

“We don’t move the runner,” Guillen said. “We’ve got a guy on third, we don’t put the ball in play. We always come up and hit into a double play. I don’t know why we work in spring training on all this stuff. The whole team needs to go to the instructional league after the season.”

The Braves, meanwhile, looked like a team that has won 13 straight division titles.

“The bottom line is we kept our composure and put them three games behind us,” Jones said. “That’s a full series, in case you were wondering. I don’t even think we played our best baseball, and we dumped on a team not playing very well. We’ll see if we can keep them right there.”

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