- The Washington Times - Monday, August 29, 2005

This is what happens when the season is spiraling out of control and it seems like nothing can be done about it: Everybody vents.

The manager says he has tried everything he can think of to no avail. The general manager threatens to bench all eight of his regular position players in favor of minor leaguers. The cleanup hitter thinks it’s a good idea to bunt with two on and nobody out in a scoreless game. And the leadoff hitter blasts him for doing it.

If the Washington Nationals didn’t hit rock bottom yesterday in a 6-0 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals, it’s hard to imagine what rock bottom looks like.

“We gave them this game today,” general manager Jim Bowden said. “It was embarrassing. … It was pathetic.”

And it was bound to happen. For weeks now, the Nationals had been building up to something like this. They haven’t been able to hit. They have squandered what few opportunities they get. They have been doing all the little things wrong.

Yesterday’s crowd of 41,130 at RFK Stadium grew more restless with each passing inning of futility. By the time Washington’s players trudged off the field following their fourth loss of this six-game homestand, they looked resigned to their fate.

“I’ve tried everything I can think of,” manager Frank Robinson said. “You shouldn’t play like this at home. It’s not acceptable.”

When they open a four-game series in Atlanta tonight, the Nationals (67-63) will be seven games behind the first-place Braves in the National League East. They will be in fifth place in the wild-card race, sitting 2 games behind the Philllies.

Their chances for making up that much ground over the season’s final 32 games are growing slimmer by the day. As is the optimism that once permeated through their clubhouse.

“Hopefully tomorrow for us it will be a new team out there,” left fielder Brad Wilkerson said. “And if it’s not, then you might want to cash it in early.”

The way the Nationals played the last two days against the Cardinals, it wouldn’t be inappropriate to question whether they already have.

Washington was shut out in consecutive games started by St. Louis pitchers who weren’t even scheduled to start. As if Saturday’s two-hit performance against right-hander Jason Marquis, filling in for an injured Mark Mulder, wasn’t bad enough, consider yesterday’s loss by the same 6-0 score.

With Mulder again scratched because of a stiff neck, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa had no choice but to ask five members of his bullpen to join forces and cobble together nine innings. Cal Eldred, Brad Thompson, Julian Tavarez, Al Reyes and Ray King did more than that — they combined on a four-hit shutout.

That means the Nationals have gone 21 innings since scoring their last run, during which time they have totaled seven hits.

Oh yeah, and St. Louis star and MVP candidate Albert Pujols wasn’t even in the lineup after getting ejected before the bottom of the first.

“We all stink,” right fielder Jose Guillen said. “We cannot get people on base. We make too many mistakes. We look like Little League players.”

Guillen was at the center of the afternoon’s most-controversial moment, his decision to try to lay down a sacrifice bunt with runners on first and second and nobody out in the fourth inning. He wound up bunting the ball too hard, forcing Nick Johnson out at second base. Preston Wilson then grounded into an inning-ending double play that killed Washington’s best scoring opportunity.

Guillen, who has one sacrifice all season, took the blame for bunting on his own, a decision that did not sit well with his manager or his teammates.

“We had our 4-hitter up at the plate, and we’re bunting him over?” Wilkerson said. “I mean, he’s our best hitter on the team right now. We need to not do those type of things. When you’ve got your best hitter at the plate and you’re struggling to score runs, you need to swing the bat.”

And make sound decisions in the field, something the Nationals clearly did not do yesterday. Despite getting five scoreless innings from left-handed reliever John Halama (0-1) in his first start, Washington squandered the performance in the sixth. With the bases loaded and one out, Yadier Molina grounded into a run-scoring fielder’s choice, narrowly beating out a potential double play.

With runners now on the corners and two outs, Molina took off for second. Catcher Gary Bennett hesitated, then threw late to Carroll, at which time Jim Edmonds bolted from third on the other end of the double steal. Carroll’s throw back to the plate sailed wide, and Edmonds slid through Bennett to score the run.

“I shot us in the foot right there,” said Bennett, who acknowledged he never should have thrown to second in the first place. “Those are the kind of mistakes you can’t afford to make, and I did. I made a stupid decision. I need to be smarter out there.”

The Cardinals tacked on four runs to run away with it and leave the Nationals all the more steamed.

With rosters expanding to 40 players Thursday, Bowden issued an ultimatum to his free-falling team.

“You know what? Be a man, wake up and do some damage,” he said. “Or guess what? After that, Frank’s going to do whatever he can do. By the time he gets to Thursday, if they’re not hitting, he might as well put other people in there. There’s a lot of guys who can score no runs a game.”

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