PHILADELPHIA — The banged-up Washington Nationals limp into the All-Star break having lost five of seven games to division rivals.
That down note should not diminish the fact that the Nationals have had a terrific first half that surpassed any realistic expectations. Who would have believed the Nationals (52-36) would be in first place in the National League East, 2 games in front of the second-place Atlanta Braves at the midway point of the season?
Last year at this time, the Montreal Expos were 31-56 and 15 games behind in the NL East standings.
Yesterday’s 5-4 loss in 12 innings to the Philadelphia Phillies before 34,124 at Citizens Bank Park was certainly a tough loss for the Nationals. But other than a few road hiccups during the first half, the Nationals have played consistently well over the first three months of the season. The Nationals are 30-13 at RFK Stadium, which is the best home record in the majors.
“I’m not disappointed the way the club finished up [the first half],” Nationals manager Frank Robinson said. “They have nothing to be ashamed of the way they finished up. The last seven games we had opportunities to win games. We just didn’t get the big hit or the big pitch, it got away from us a little bit here. I’m very proud of the ballclub in the first half that we had.
“It was a tremendous first half and we’re just going to take these three days off — a well-deserved three days off — and come back and be ready to go because if we thought it was tough the first half, it’s going to be even tougher in the second half because everybody is going to be coming at us with everything they’ve got.”
The Nationals have held sole possession of first place of the division lead for 36 days now despite a rash of injuries.
The club has used a major league-leading 44 players this season. The franchise record for players used in a season is 49 by the 2000 Expos. Nationals players have spent a combined 817 games on the DL.
Key contributors such as first baseman Nick Johnson, rookie outfielder Ryan Church, second baseman Jose Vidro, newly acquired second baseman Junior Spivey, promising second-year outfielder Terrmel Sledge, and surprising starter John Patterson are among the notables who have spent time on the disabled list, are currently on the DL, or out for the season.
Others are playing in pain. Center fielder Brad Wilkerson is bothered by irritation in his right forearm that affects his swing. Vinny Castilla, the club’s 38-year-old third baseman, is limping around on a bum left knee that has plagued him since spring training. Outfielder Jose Guillen has a bad shoulder and a swollen left ankle.
Guillen, who with a man on belted his team-leading 18th home run yesterday in the fourth inning off Phillies ace Jon Lieber to give the Nationals a 3-0 lead, said some of his teammates may have to play in pain the rest of the way if the Nationals are to end the Braves’ 13-year reign as division champs.
“You know we need Nick,” Guillen said. “We need some of those guys to learn how to play in pain and they need step it up. Right now, in the second half, there is no baby-sitting any more. We all need to come out and just perform and play. Look at Vinny, he has his knee all messed up, and he’s 38 years old. I’ve been playing with some really tough injuries and just played through it. Some guys cannot play through it and we’ve got to make sure those guys are ready for the second half because we are going to need them.”
The Nationals’ magical first half was rewarded with pitchers Livan Hernandez and Chad Cordero being selected to the National League All-Star team that plays tomorrow night at Detroit’s Comerica Park. The workhorse Hernandez went 12-3 with a 3.48 ERA and pitched 1341/3 innings. Closer Cordero saved 31 games, tops in baseball.
“It’s going to be exciting, I’m really looking forward to it,” Cordero said. “I’m looking forward to seeing all the guys and meeting all of them. What you did in the first half is over with. We still have to go out there and prove that we can win this division and we can’t sit on what we did, we’ve got to continue and play hard.”
The Nationals had their chances to enter the break with a win before Phillies pinch hitter Ramon Martinez drilled a one-out roller into center field in the 12th inning off reliever Sun-Woo Kim to knock in the winning run for the Phillies (45-44).
“The last three hitters I tried to get them to hit ground balls,” said Kim, whose record dropped to 1-2. “That’s what I wanted, ground balls. We have a great infield so I tried to get them to hit ground balls.”
The Nationals took a 1-0 lead in the third inning. Matt Cepicky led off the inning with a line-drive double into the right-field corner and scored on a Wilkerson RBI single to center. The Phillies drew within 3-2 with runs in the fourth and fifth innings but Washington extended its lead to 4-2 in the seventh when Jamey Carroll scored from third on a wild pitch from Phillies reliever Ryan Madson.
In the eighth, Philadelphia rookie first baseman Ryan Howard blasted a two-run homer off right-handed reliever Gary Majewski to tie the game 4-4.