- The Washington Times - Monday, May 1, 2006

ST. LOUIS — There’s no way to sugarcoat this: The Washington Nationals just completed a horrendous month of baseball.

An ugly 9-2 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals yesterday was the final touch on an unsightly April, a month in which the Nationals went 8-17 and fell 8 games behind the division-leading New York Mets.

“It’s not been fun,” second baseman Jose Vidro said. “I can tell you that right now.”

The Nationals have won only two of eight series this season. Yesterday’s loss was their seventh in eight games, and even the simple task of reaching the .500 mark seems beyond their reach at the moment.

“It’s not going to be done overnight,” manager Frank Robinson said. “It’s not going to be done in a week. … You can’t do it all at one time.”

No, but the way things are going, the Nationals seem to be digging themselves a deeper hole every day. Take yesterday’s game. The Nationals took an early 2-1 lead on a home run by Ryan Zimmerman and an impressive start by right-hander Zach Day.

But then it unraveled, in sudden and demoralizing fashion. Day (1-3), making his first start for the Nationals since he was traded to Colorado last July, got into trouble in the fifth, walking No. 8 hitter Aaron Miles and allowing a two-out, infield single to David Eckstein.

Eckstein narrowly beat shortstop Royce Clayton’s throw to first, and that perhaps altered the rest of the afternoon. John Rodriguez followed with an RBI single to tie the game, and after slugger Albert Pujols drew the second of his four walks, Jim Edmonds delivered a two-out, two-run single up the middle.

That ended Day’s afternoon, which actually was more encouraging than discouraging.

“Health-wise, I feel good,” said the right-hander, who complained of shoulder problems after being released by the Rockies. “I made some good quality pitches, and for the most part stayed ahead of hitters.”

Said Robinson: “I like what I saw out there today.”

On the surface, the disappointing fifth inning shouldn’t have doomed the Nationals to defeat. They trailed only 4-2, but as Vidro put it: “The other teams scores some runs, and for us, that seems like the end of the world.”

Sure enough, Washington managed just one more hit the rest of the game against Cardinals starter Jeff Suppan (2-2) and a pair of relievers.

The bullpen, meanwhile, imploded again. Jason Bergmann gave up two runs in the sixth, aided by lefty Joey Eischen, who gave up the single that drove in both runs and then uncorked a wild pitch while trying to intentionally walk Pujols.

In the eighth, Felix Rodriguez gave up three runs on three hits and two walks.

“That’s a real problem,” Robinson said of his struggling bullpen, which gave up 10 runs in 10 innings in this series. “It gets you kind of back on your heels.”

Kind of like the entire Washington club right now: nine games under .500 on May 1 and heading to New York for a two-game series with the first-place Mets.

“I don’t think you can really focus too much on the immediate, because it seems impossible,” Clayton said. “But think about it: We’ve got five more months. A couple of games over .500 [each month], just playing like that puts us right where you need to be.”

“There’s not a heck of a lot we can do to change the lineup, other than the people we have here getting the big hits for us that aren’t doing it right now,” Robinson said. “We’re just not doing the job we have to do day in and day out. We play one decent ballgame, and then the next day it looks like we don’t even know what the game’s about.”

Vidro talked yesterday about needing “a spark” to get the club going. Clayton said that could come in any variety of forms, a well-pitched ballgame, a clutch hit from someone, a great defensive play by someone else.

“The changes need to be made by us,” Vidro said. “We’re the ones that are not performing the way we should be performing out there.”

So as they packed their bags last night and left for what figured to be a quiet flight to New York, the Nationals might have been doing some soul-searching. Each player might have been thinking to himself: “What can I do to help this team get back on track?”

The manager, meanwhile, searched for reasons remain optimistic. And he does remain optimistic, despite an April he surely would like to forget.

“I still can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Robinson said.

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To submit a question, go to the Sports Page.

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