- The Washington Times - Monday, August 22, 2005

NEW YORK — Ryan Church walked into the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse at Shea Stadium yesterday and was immediately greeted by bench coach Eddie Rodriguez. Rodriguez didn’t have to say anything; all he did was point upward with one index finger, and Church knew what that meant.

He was leading off. For the first time in his baseball life.

Not in the majors, not in the minors, not in college and not in high school. Aside from a couple of spring training games this year, the rookie outfielder never had been penciled in atop the lineup.

“And that was to get at-bats,” Church said. “This is a little different.”

With regular leadoff man Brad Wilkerson struggling, though, Nationals manager Frank Robinson decided to give Church a shot yesterday against the New York Mets, one night after he went 2-for-2 late in a 9-8 loss.

“He looked like his old self,” Robinson said of Church, who had had just four hits in his last 34 at-bats. “[Saturday night] was the first at-bats in the second half I’ve seen where he had success.”

That success carried over to yesterday’s game. In the first inning alone, when the Nationals batted around and scored six runs, Church doubled down the right-field line and laced an RBI single to right-center. He later drew a pair of walks (one with the bases loaded), meaning he has reached base in six of his last seven plate appearances.

“[Saturday] night was a turning point,” Church said. “I hope it is. As long as I continue to take steps forward.”

Robinson said he will decide tomorrow whether to start Church again or bring Wilkerson back.

Leaking Livan

Even before Saturday night’s game, Robinson noted that ace right-hander Livan Hernandez had been “leaking a little” on the mound.

The translation: Hernandez wasn’t as sharp as he was earlier in the season. In particular, he had been getting tagged for big innings, especially early in ballgames.

Robinson looked downright clairvoyant Saturday night after Hernandez surrendered eight runs in two-plus innings, all of them coming via three home runs.

The second-shortest outing of Hernandez’s career — he lasted only 12/3 innings July3, 2002, at Colorado — raised his ERA from 3.45 to 3.80.

He continues to battle a bad right knee, and though he insists it’s not bothering him, Robinson knows the injury has forced him to alter his pitching motion.

“He’s been pitching quite a while without his normal mechanics,” Robinson said. “He can’t pitch off his back leg. He’s more straight-up.”

All hail Halama

Lost among the craziness of Saturday’s 9-8 game was the relief performance the Nationals got from John Halama.

The veteran left-hander pumped in four innings of scoreless relief after Hernandez’s early departure. That helped the rest of Robinson’s bullpen remain fresh for the later innings while also preventing the Mets from padding the eight-run lead they wound up blowing.

“I just wanted to go out there and not force them to use the bullpen anymore,” Halama said.

Called up from Class AAA New Orleans earlier in the week, Halama has performed admirably for the Nationals so far. He tossed a scoreless inning out of the bullpen Thursday in Philadelphia to go with his four innings Saturday.

How long he remains as the third left-hander in Washington’s bullpen remains to be seen, but for now Robinson is glad to have him.

“That was exactly what we needed from him [Saturday],” the manager said. “That was key. That was big last night.”

Extra bases

Robinson met behind closed doors with Nick Johnson for nearly 30 minutes after yesterday’s game. Robinson wasn’t upset at Johnson’s ninth-inning fielding error; he simply wanted to talk to the first baseman about his recent struggles at the plate. He went just 10-for-51 on this road trip. Though he often seems to be limping from a bruised heel and a bad back, Johnson insists the injuries are not causing his lack of offense. …

Left-hander Joey Eischen, who struck out Cliff Floyd in a crucial situation yesterday, is playing with what he called a “smashed-up” pinkie toe after bumping it into a table leg in Philadelphia earlier in the week. X-rays came back negative, and Eischen said he’s fine to keep pitching.

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