- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 29, 2005

ST. LOUIS — When you only give yourself one legitimate chance to score in a nine-inning game, you better make the most of that opportunity.

You certainly better not ground into an inning-ending double play on the first pitch you see.

Which explains why Washington Nationals manager Frank Robinson was so livid after veteran third baseman Vinny Castilla did just that in the sixth inning of a 3-1 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals last night at Busch Stadium.

“Sometimes you have to work the count,” Robinson said, emphasizing each of the last three words. “Just don’t go up there and swing at the first pitch.”

Castilla didn’t heed his manager’s advice. With the Nationals trailing by two runs but Cardinals starter Jeff Suppan seemingly on the ropes after walking Nick Johnson with the bases loaded, Castilla would have been wise to show more selectivity at the plate.

Instead, he swung at the first thing he saw from Suppan — a sinker that ran away from him — and the end result was all too predictable: 6-4-3. Inning over. Rally over. Losing streak extended.

“We had a chance with the bases loaded and one out, and I ground into the double play,” Castilla said. “It was the one chance we had to score runs. It’s frustrating, because we know we can do better than that.”

Not these days. The Nationals now have lost five straight and seven of eight to drop their record (24-25) below .500 for the first time since they were 3-4 on April11.

They’ve got one more game to play on this road trip from you-know-where — an afternoon affair today against the Cardinals — before they can finally head home, reeling from their worst prolonged slump of the season.

“We know why we’re [below .500],” Robinson said. “During this streak, we’re just not playing good baseball.”

The Nationals had a chance to turn their fortunes around last night, to turn Suppan’s putative no-hitter into a dramatic comeback victory. But like so many other times during the last week-plus, they squandered their one and only shot.

The opportunity came in the top of the sixth, shortly after Robinson hopped out of a miniature motorized car near the Washington dugout, having just participated in the nightly “games remaining at Busch Stadium countdown” ceremony. The Cardinals will move into a new park next season.

If the sight of the 69-year-old, Hall of Famer seated next to a giant mascot named “Fredbird” wasn’t farcical enough, the three dink-and-dunk singles by the Nationals that broke up Suppan’s no-hitter were the perfect stamp to a ludicrous couple of minutes.

There was nothing funny about Johnson’s upcoming bases-loaded at-bat. The Washington cleanup hitter did just what he was supposed to do: took two straight balls, then swung and missed, then took two more balls and trotted to first having “driven in” the Nationals’ first run of the night.

“You’ve got to do whatever it takes to get on,” Johnson said.

Castilla didn’t. The veteran hitter who carried this team during much of the season’s first month, bit on the first pitch from Suppan (4-5) and hit it harmlessly to shortstop David Eckstein.

It was not the kind of hitting approach Robinson was looking for in that situation.

“I’m looking for a guy to get the type of pitch that he’s strong against, the kind where he can have a good swing,” the manager said. “You’re not always going to get the results. But have a good swing, a good at-bat.”

Castilla got neither, and he knew it.

“I tried to hit it too hard, and I chopped it to the ground,” he said.

The Nationals went down quietly after that, managing just one more hit off Suppan and none off relievers Julian Tavarez and Jason Isringhausen (14th save).

Washington has been held to three runs or less in 10 of its last 11 games.

“Every pitcher that goes out there can’t be that good, to continue to shut us down,” Robinson said.

Last night’s anemic performance meant yet another hard-luck loss for Washington starter Esteban Loaiza (1-4), whose outings are sounding more and more like broken records. The right-hander pitched effectively, surrendering only a solo homer to Jim Edmonds and a two-run shot to Yadier Molina in the second inning, but had nothing to show for it by night’s end.

The Nationals came in having given Loaiza the league’s worst run support — 1.90 per nine innings — and they couldn’t even reach that low figure last night.

“What can I do?” he said. “I’m a pitcher. I haven’t gotten the support from my teammates, but I know they’re out there battling.”

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