The swiftness with which Washington Nationals manager Frank Robinson yanked starter John Halama from last night's game at RFK Stadium was surprising and yet almost to be expected.
The game wound up a rout, with the Florida Marlins cruising to a 12-1 victory before a lackluster crowd of 25,702 as Dontrelle Willis cruised to his 20th win of the season. But when Robinson made the slow walk from dugout to mound to remove Halama with two outs in the first and the Marlins leading only 1-0, eyebrows were raised.
As the manager explained later -- once this debacle of a game was over and the Nationals found themselves again trailing in the wild-card race by 3-1/2 games - he had no choice but to turn things over to his bullpen in the very first inning.
"I didn't like what I saw," said Robinson, never one to hesitate taking a pitcher out of game. "I wasn't going to sit there and wait till he threw the game away in the first inning. If you want to pitch for me, you have to throw strikes."
Halama, who threw just 11 of 24 pitches over the plate, clearly didn't believe he was given a fair chance to work his way out of the inning and keep his team in the game.
"I was very surprised," the left-hander said. "I don't think anybody wouldn't be surprised getting taken out in the first inning only giving up one run. But he's the manager. He makes the decisions and that's that."
Or is it? Robinson should be able to rest easy knowing he's sending his Big Three starters -- John Patterson, Esteban Loaiza and Livan Hernandez -- to the mound the next three days. But come Sunday, the Nationals (72-68) must find another starter, and it's anyone's guess who will get the call.
Hours before the game, Robinson announced plans to go to a four-man rotation as long as this team remains in the race. The fourth member of that new rotation, though, actually will be his bullpen -- the same unit that has been this club's unquestioned strength all year but last night was pounded for 11 runs over 8-1/3 tortured innings.
"Tonight was bound to happen," reliever Joey Eischen said. "We've been doing really well for a long time. We've been answering the call, but eventually you're going to get your bell rung."
It didn't help that the bullpen was pres sed into service so early in the evening. The Marlins hadn't even scored when the call went to the bullpen to get Travis Hughes up. When Juan Encarnacion sent a two-out double to left-center to make it 1-0, Robinson's coaching staff immediately cleared a path for him up the dugout steps.
"I threw 24 pitches," Halama (0-3) said. "You tell me what wasn't working and what was."
Thus began the merry-go-round of Nationals pitchers, each trotting in from the bullpen for two innings or one run (whichever came first). Hughes gave way to Jason Bergmann, who turned into Eischen, who was followed by Gary Majewski, who handed the ball to Hector Carrasco, who gave it to Mike Stanton.
Against each, the Marlins tacked on another run or two. Hughes gave up a two-run homer to Carlos Delgado in the third. Bergmann surrendered two more runs in the fourth. Eischen was touched up for one in the fifth, Majewski for two in the sixth, Carrasco for two in the seventh, Stanton for one in the ninth.
It only made the challenge for Washington's hitters more difficult. This team has never had success against Willis -- the left-hander is now 8-2 for his career against the franchise, 3-0 this year.
Robinson shook up his starting lineup, hoping that might produce different results. First baseman Brad Wilkerson, 2-for-20 in his career against Willis, took a seat in favor of Carlos Baerga. And rookie Ryan Zimmerman at last got the call for his first big league start at shortstop, not his natural third base position.
Willis (20-8) blew right through the first five batters, but Zimmerman stepped up with two out in the second and drilled a shot to deep right-center for his second double in seven career at-bats.
Zimmerman also looked fairly comfortable in the field despite playing just seven games at shortstop at Class AA Harrisburg. He played the position in high school, though, and didn't seem fazed by the challenge [-] though he did commit a pair of errors late in the game with the rout already on.
"It was fun," Zimmerman said. "I wish I could have done a little better."
Maybe Robinson should have put together a lineup exclusively of September call-ups. They were the only ones who seemed to have a clue against Willis. After five scoreless innings, the lefty finally got touched up in the sixth when Rick Short (who entered as part of a double switch) launched his first career homer into the left-field mezzanine. Moments later, pinch-hitter Kenny Kelly turned a routine liner to left-center into a double. That's about all the offense Washington managed.
"Tonight felt like we were a second-tier team," left fielder Marlon Byrd said. "They gave us a butt-whupping."