These are potentially fractious times for the Washington Nationals, who after a 3-2 loss to the New York Mets in 11 innings yesterday find themselves slipping ever so slightly in the days leading up to the All-Star break.
The injuries they have so admirably overcome for the last three months are beginning to catch up to them.
The late-game heroics that have come to define their season suddenly have shifted in the opponent’s favor.
The star right fielder with the competitive fire is battling physical ailments and perhaps some discord within the clubhouse.
And the esteemed manager is getting into heated arguments with umpires, all the while trying to keep his players fired up amid their first mini-slump in more than a month.
“If this series doesn’t fire them up, I don’t know what will,” Robinson said following his club’s third loss in four days to the Mets and first series loss at home since late April. “They should understand what’s going on here and why we lost three games in this series.”
The Nationals were forced to take the field with a makeshift lineup of sorts because key figures like Nick Johnson, Cristian Guzman and Ryan Church are out with injuries. To that list, Washington added right fielder Jose Guillen, who was out of the lineup yesterday with what the team called a case of bronchitis — though he did come in to play the final two innings.
“I just feel weak,” said Guillen, who reportedly was upset with teammates for not retaliating after he was plunked by Pedro Martinez on Tuesday night. “I don’t know what it is. I’ve had it the last three days.”
With those regulars out, Robinson strung together a lineup that featured a cleanup hitter (Carlos Baerga) with no home runs, a left fielder (Matt Cepicky) with no hits and a collective starting nine with fewer homers (21) than eight major leaguers have hit by themselves.
Robinson, though, refused to blame his team’s slide on a lack of able bodies.
“I’m not going to sit here and use that as an excuse for us not winning ballgames in this series,” he said. “We had opportunities. All we had to do was execute and take advantage of them, and we very easily could have won three out of the four games.”
Washington (51-34) couldn’t push more than two runs across against the Mets despite 11 innings filled with opportunities. Jose Vidro provided the only clutch hit of the game with a two-run double in the third.
Otherwise, the Nationals were unable to execute at the plate. Marlon Byrd stranded a runner on third with an inning-ending double play in the second. Pitcher Tony Armas Jr., who allowed just two runs on four hits in seven innings, could not lay down a sacrifice bunt in the fifth. Baerga later grounded out with the bases loaded. And Guillen and Brad Wilkerson could not drive in the game-winning run from second in the bottom of the ninth.
“We had opportunities today, and we just couldn’t come through,” Wilkerson said. “I feel bad for Tony. He pitched a great game.”
The coup de grace came in the 11th, when reliever Luis Ayala (7-5) allowed a one-out double to Carlos Beltran and then intentionally walked Cliff Floyd to get to Mike Piazza. Piazza dropped a blooper into shallow right field, scoring Beltran with the winning run. Guillen, who conceded he was playing too deep, actually started an unusual 9-2-6-2 double play to end the inning, with both Piazza and Floyd getting thrown out.
That gave New York a 3-2 lead and set the stage for closer Braden Looper to come on and seek his 20th save. Just one problem: The top of the 11th transpired so fast that Looper had no time to warm up.
So in an act of some gamesmanship, Mets reliever Heath Bell (1-3) took his time walking out to the mound for the bottom of the inning, took his full allotment of warm-ups, then was pulled by manager Willie Randolph.
Robinson stormed out of his dugout to argue, but crew chief Joe West insisted the obvious stall technique was within the rules.
“No, it’s not within the rules,” Robinson said he told West. “You stretched the rules, and you let him get away with it. The pitcher’s supposed to go out to the mound in a timely fashion.”
Unethical move or not, the Nationals went down quietly in the 11th, sealing their fate before what was left of a huge RFK Stadium crowd of 44,492.
Shortly thereafter, they boarded a charter train for Philadelphia, a suddenly crucial weekend series with the Phillies looming following a surprising lull at home.
“This will only be a lull if we go to Philadelphia and play the same way and get the same results [as before],” Robinson said. “You can lose three out of four, but it’s what happens after that. Do you bounce back, or do you continue to play the same way? We’ll see.”