- The Washington Times - Friday, April 28, 2006

ST. LOUIS — Frank Robinson insisted his Washington Nationals weren’t in crisis mode heading into last night’s game against the St. Louis Cardinals. More like damage control, the manager said.

It’s hard to imagine what more would have to happen for this to reach critical stages.

A 6-2 loss at the new Busch Stadium might have finally been too much for this reeling club. Robinson held a brief team meeting afterward, during which he told his players time is running out to get their act together.

“Pretty soon, if we don’t right the ship, it’s going to be too late,” Robinson said. “The early stuff is over with. You wait and wait and wait, and it continues and continues and continues, so you try something else.”

The Nationals could be tempted to try something else if the wins don’t start coming.

General manager Jim Bowden has reacted to long losing streaks in the past with wholesale changes and could be tempted to do it again.

“It’s April. You don’t panic in April,” Bowden said before last night’s game. “By the same token, we continue to look for good, young players you can build with long-term.”

Bowden was speaking about young players not already in the Nationals’ farm system, but he might have to add Mike O’Connor to that list, because the rookie left-hander was hardly to blame last night for the club’s fifth straight loss.

The 25-year-old from Ellicott City, Md., and George Washington, who before this season had never pitched above Class A, performed admirably under the circumstances. His only mistake in five innings was a three-run homer by Jim Edmonds in the first, and that blast was only made possible by Ryan Zimmerman’s throwing error moments before.

Otherwise, O’Connor (0-1) kept the Cardinals’ vaunted lineup off-balance all night, despite making his major league debut on only three days’ rest. He even managed to retire Albert Pujols, the game’s most-feared hitter at the moment, all three times he came to the plate.

O’Connor was charged with no earned runs on three hits, and though he walked four, he pitched his way out of it and earned the respect of everyone in the Nationals dugout.

“The kid pitched very, very well,” Robinson said. “You couldn’t ask for any more. Very impressive, the way he pitched. He deserves another shot.”

Even after O’Connor got off to a solid start at Class AAA New Orleans this month, it took a stunning series of events for him to work his way up the depth chart. O’Connor was called up to replace left-hander Billy Traber, who had been called up to replace the injured Ryan Drese, who had been activated to fill in for the injured Pedro Astacio, who was signed this spring to replace the injured Brian Lawrence.

Club officials were hoping for the best out of O’Connor while privately preparing for the worst.

It looked like O’Connor was headed for the latter when he was tagged by Edmonds for a 414-foot blast over the bullpen in right field. At that juncture, the young pitcher could have wilted under the pressure. But he composed himself and kept the Cardinals from scoring the rest of his outing.

“I definitely feel like I battled the whole time,” O’Connor said. “I was behind every batter. But getting through five, I think, was pretty good. It’s something that probably won’t hit me until a couple days later.”

If only the Nationals had given their rookie hurler some semblance of offensive support. Instead, Washington was held hostage by right-hander Sidney Ponson, the former Baltimore Orioles bad boy who has seen the light in St. Louis.

Ponson (3-0) carried a three-hit shutout into the seventh before finally faltering. A two-out, two-run double by Brian Schneider made it a 3-2 game and ended Ponson’s night.

Royce Clayton followed with an infield single up the middle, one that caromed away from second baseman Fernando Luna and might have allowed Schneider to score the tying run had he been waved around by third-base coach Tony Beasley.

Schneider, though, wound up stranded when pinch-hitter Marlon Byrd grounded out, and that all but sealed the Nationals’ fifth straight loss. The Cardinals added three insurance runs off reliever Gary Majewski, and Washington fell to 7-15, perhaps on the verge of falling into crisis mode.

“How many do we have to win to get back to .500? Eight in a row,” center fielder Ryan Church said. “That’s tough to do. We’ve got to win, and then we’ve got to keep winning to get back in it.”

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