ATLANTA — For three weeks, Frank Robinson watched his Washington Nationals unravel on the field and kept his mouth shut. The soon-to-be 70-year-old manager would offer up looks of frustration from his perch on the dugout railing or make idle comments about how his team needed to play better, but that’s as much emotion as he would show.
After a maddeningly frustrating 4-3 loss to the Atlanta Braves last night, though, Robinson finally decided he had had enough. Following the Nationals’ 14th loss in 18 games, Robinson closed the doors of the visitors clubhouse at Turner Field for 15 minutes and cut loose.
The crux of Robinson’s impassioned message was simple: Play with more energy. Play with more brain-power. Play like major leaguers.
“I had something I had to say,” Robinson said. “I got it off my chest, and I said it.”
Whether the manager’s rare team meeting snaps his club out of its current funk remains to be seen. At the very least, Nationals players seem to believe the message got through.
“Even if he wasn’t our coach and came in here to give us a pep-talk, it’s Frank Robinson speaking. You should freaking listen,” reliever Joey Eischen said. “The guy knows what he’s talking about a little bit. Hopefully, everybody’s going to switch gears, put the engine in the red and get after the prize at the end of the rainbow. Right now, we’re sort of floating along. We need to put our running shoes on and get to work.”
Said third baseman Vinny Castilla: “He was upset with the way we’ve played, and I don’t blame him. We’re not playing like a major league club right now.”
It wasn’t that long ago the Nationals were playing not only like a major league club but a first-place club at that. For nearly two months, they got great pitching, they got clutch hitting and they played the game with a swagger and confidence found only on winning teams.
Somewhere along the way, though, they lost that swagger and, along with it, their first-place standing.
And even when they appeared to rediscover that old form briefly last night, they still found a way to lose it in the end.
Despite rallying in inspired fashion to tie the game in the eighth inning, the Nationals gave a run back to the Braves in the bottom of the inning and wound up losing their second-straight heartbreaker at Turner Field.
Jeff Francoeur produced the game-winning hit this time, a bloop double off Gary Majewski (2-2) that fell in just past a lunging Jose Vidro behind second base. Francoeur, though, probably never should have had a chance to come up in that situation.
Moments earlier, catcher Brian Schneider appeared to gun down Chipper Jones trying to steal second with two outs. The throw got to shortstop Cristian Guzman in plenty of time, but he dropped it trying to make a sweep tag. Jones slid in safely with only his second stolen base of the year, and minutes later he came racing around to score on Francoeur’s hit.
“I thought I got him,” Guzman said. “But at the last second, the ball goes down a little bit. It had a little bounce, and then you saw what happened. I missed the ball.”
The Nationals (55-46) went down quietly in the ninth and trudged off having fallen two games behind Atlanta in the National League East.
Second place is where they will remain when they leave town tonight, regardless of the outcome of the series finale. A win puts them back within one game of Atlanta. A loss puts them a full three games back, making today’s game as must-win as it gets in baseball.
“No, it isn’t,” outfielder Preston Wilson said. “There’s a whole lot of games left this season. We’d like to win, but it’s not a must-win.”
For a few glorious moments in the eighth last night, it looked like Washington might get that much-needed win. Trailing 3-1, they stormed back to tie the game on back-to-back RBI singles by Jose Guillen and Nick Johnson. But beleaguered Braves reliever Dan Kolb managed to strand both runners by striking out Wilson, then getting Castilla and Schneider to fly out.
That capped a rough night for Castilla, who went 0-for-4, stranded six runners on base and killed a potentially big first inning against Tim Hudson by grounding into his team-leading 13th double play of the season.
“It’s frustrating,” said Castilla, who is now batting a season-worst .247. “You go up there and try to do your best, and you can’t come through with the big hit.”
The Nationals’ problems weren’t solely at the plate last night, though. They were equally as ineffective in the field. In addition to Guzman’s dropped throw, Washington infielders twice lost routine popups in the thick Atlanta night sky, leading to two of the Braves’ runs.
Starter Esteban Loaiza also hurt himself by making an ill-advised throw to second on Brian McCann’s seventh-inning bunt. The ball sailed into center field, and Francoeur (the baserunner) wound up in position to score on Eischen’s wild pitch later in the inning.
Afterward, Eischen (one of the club’s most vocal players) outlined what it’s going to take for the Nationals to get back on track.
“Right now, our opponents are bringing more focus and energy than we are,” he said. “That’s something that we can take care of ourselves. That’s not something you have to practice. That’s something you have to bring yourself, and that’s what [Robinson’s] asking everybody in this room to do.
“You’ve got to dig inside yourself and get the job done. We’re not minor leaguers; we’re big leaguers.”