- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 26, 2005

They’re not hitting. They’re not scoring. They’re not winning. They’re not focusing on the task at hand.

They are, in short, playing their worst baseball of the year, just as they embark on their most important road trip of the year.

And now the Washington Nationals’ general manager is issuing a challenge to each of the players on his roster.

“They have to start looking in the mirror,” Jim Bowden said yesterday. “They have to look where they are individually. And instead of worrying about how far the fences are or what kind of food is in the clubhouse, they need to focus on themselves, how they can improve their own personal performance. If they can improve their own personal performance, the team will automatically get better.”

Harsh words from a man who generally is regarded as a “player’s GM,” one who interacts and gets along with today’s major leaguers as well as anyone else in his profession.

These are frustrating times for the Nationals, though, and it’s beginning to show. Since returning from the All-Star break 12 days ago, they have spent more time talking about the incorrect distance markings on RFK Stadium’s outfield fence, Livan Hernandez’s threat to undergo knee surgery, controversial umpire calls like Mike Stanton’s walk-off balk in Milwaukee and the unpopular departure of veteran Wil Cordero (who was officially released yesterday) than their play on the field.

Is it any wonder they have lost eight of 11 since the All-Star break going into tonight’s opener of a crucial three-game series in Atlanta?

That’s why Bowden implored his team yesterday to return its focus to the field and away from the individual distractions that have cropped up over the last two weeks.

“I think that the club has spent a lot of time worrying about each other and other circumstances instead of making sure they can get the most professional at-bats they’re capable of having,” Bowden said. “We’ve had some players not running out every groundball. We’ve had players swinging at the first pitch. We’ve had players that are swinging at balls out of the zone they don’t normally swing at.

“When those kinds of things happen, you take a deep breath, you forget about your teammates, you forget about other issues and you just concentrate on how I can get back to playing my game. How can I run out a groundball harder than I have been? How can I make sure I have the best quality at-bat I’m used to having? How do I get my swagger, my arrogance back that I had in the first half? That’s what they need to concentrate on.”

It won’t be easy. Not only must the Nationals snap out of their funk, they must do it against the best their chief division rivals have to offer. John Smoltz pitches tonight for the Braves against Hernandez, with Tim Hudson and Mike Hampton to follow.

Making matters worse, a Washington lineup that is batting just .170 since the break is likely to be without No.3 hitter Jose Guillen through the entire Atlanta series. Guillen, who was hit in the right hand by Houston reliever Dan Wheeler on Sunday, will make the trip but is doubtful to play after suffering a deep bruise.

The injury could have been a lot worse. Club officials and teammates worried Guillen had broken his fifth metatarsal when he went down in a heap upon getting drilled in the hand. X-rays came back negative, though, and Bowden said yesterday he has no reason to believe a fracture will be discovered later on, as was the case earlier this season with pitcher Zach Day.

Still, even Guillen’s brief absence could have a big effect on the Nationals’ struggling offense, which has scored just 2.8 runs a game since the break, down 1.3 runs from the first half of the season.

The low point may have come Sunday in a 4-1, 14-inning loss to the Astros. Washington managed all of four hits in the game, one in the final nine innings.

Of even greater concern to manager Frank Robinson was his hitters’ approach at the plate. Nearly everyone in the lineup looked like he was swinging from his heels, trying to knock the ball out of the park instead of trying to get on base or move runners up.

Sunday might have been the low point, but this has become a recurring theme. Despite constant pleas from Robinson and hitting coach Tom McCraw for better production in the clutch, the Nationals are hitting .206 with runners in scoring position this month, .144 in their 13 losses.

“I can’t make them make contact,” Robinson said. “I can’t make them hit a fly ball. I can’t make them get a base hit.”

On the bright side, Robinson should get one of his top run producers (and smartest hitters) back tonight. First baseman Nick Johnson, out since June 26 with a bruised right heel, was expected to make one more rehab appearance with Class AAA New Orleans last night, then join the club in Atlanta for the start of this series.

And for as much trouble as the Nationals have had at the plate in recent weeks, they continue to receive stellar work on the mound from their pitching staff. That unit has posted a 3.46 ERA in July, better than any previous month this season.

And to top it all off, Washington still wakes up this morning tied with the Braves for first place, with a chance to reassume control of the division by capturing this huge series at Turner Field.

“Look, we’ve played horrible baseball since the All-Star break, but our pitching has been as good as it’s been all year,” Bowden said. “I don’t think you panic. If I told you in spring training that on Monday, July 25 we’d be tied for first with the Atlanta Braves going down there to play a three-game series, I think you’d be pretty happy.”

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