- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 19, 2005

ARLINGTON, Texas — How long had it been since the Washington Nationals lost two games in a row?

So long ago that Frank Robinson’s team wasn’t even a .500 club when it dropped the first two games of a weekend series in St. Louis on May28-29. So long ago that Brendan Harris was playing second base and Tyrell Godwin was coming off the bench. So long ago that the last place anyone expected to find the Nationals was in first place.

Needless to say, it was a very different Washington team that lost to the Texas Rangers 7-4 last night. This one has become so unaccustomed to losing, it wasn’t quite sure how to react to its second straight setback at Ameriquest Field.

“It’s been awhile,” outfielder Ryan Church acknowledged. “It’s a little bump in the road, but we’ll bounce back.”

They better. The Nationals (39-29) suddenly face as close to a must-win game as they have had in a long time this afternoon under the scorching Texas sun. Even though they still lead the National League East by 1 games — thanks to the Philadelphia Phillies’ 2-1 loss in Anaheim — the Nationals can’t afford to let things get out of hand just when they were going so well.

“You win tomorrow, you win at least one game [in the series],” Robinson said. “You don’t, then it’s three games [lost], and you certainly don’t want that. I wouldn’t put it as a must-win, but to me, it’s an important win in this road trip.”

Washington’s feel-good season has been at least temporarily derailed this weekend by the explosive Rangers, who have won the first two games of the series by a combined 15-5. They’ve done so by terrorizing two members of the Nationals’ previously reliable pitching staff, John Patterson on Friday night and Tony Armas Jr. last night.

Armas (3-4) was particularly ineffective in his first poor start in nearly a month. The right-hander was pounded for seven runs, all of them coming via four home runs.

Mark Teixeira went deep twice in the game’s first two innings, launching one off the right-field foul pole in the first, then hitting his 19th down the left-field line in the second. Alfonso Soriano matched Teixeira with his 19th homer, a solo shot in the first, and Gary Matthews Jr. finished the onslaught with a two-run homer in the second. Before the Nationals knew what hit them, they were staring at a 7-0 deficit.

“It’s tough when you make mistakes,” Armas said, “especially in a park like this where the ball flies.”

If Armas accomplished nothing else, at least he gave Robinson five innings to help save a depleted bullpen. T.J. Tucker went on the disabled list yesterday with elbow inflammation, and replacement Travis Hughes did not arrive from Class AAA New Orleans in time for the game.

There was little else positive to say about Armas, who had begun to make some significant strides over his last three starts (2-0 with a 1.59 ERA).

After this latest fiasco, though, the Nationals have to start wondering how the 27-year-old right-hander ultimately fits into their long-term plans. If Washington indeed plans on making a serious run at a division title, it’s going to need its No.4 starter to be a little more reliable.

“It’ll be a decent game, then two uneven games,” Robinson said of Armas. “We need to see more consistency out of him.”

Of course, the Nationals also can’t expect to compete for a pennant with the kind of offense that has shown up this weekend at the Rangers’ hitter-friendly ballpark.

On Friday night, Robinson could at least note that he was without Jose Guillen (sick) and Church (possible concussion) against Texas ace Kenny Rogers. The manager had no built-in excuses for last night’s performance. Guillen was back in the 3-hole, while Church was plugged in the fifth spot, where Robinson believed he could drive in more runs than he has as a No.2 hitter. Indeed, Church drove in two of the Nationals’ runs with a pair of solo homers.

“The two home runs don’t matter,” said Church, who hit another ball off the wall. “We lost.”

Robinson’s other lineup changes — Vinny Castilla was dropped to seventh for the first time this season behind designated hitter Wil Cordero, while Junior Spivey batted second — didn’t produce any better results. Castilla went 0-for-2, leaving him 2-for-17 on this road trip. Cordero went 0-for-4, leaving him 1-for-24 for the season.

Cristian Guzman was the only other Washington hitter to have any success against Texas’ Ricardo Rodriguez, homering for the second straight night during garbage time.

Otherwise, the Nationals were rendered helpless by Rodriguez (2-0), who departed following Guzman’s homer in the eighth to a standing ovation from the sellout crowd of 48,663.

“He really kept us off-balance,” Cordero said. “He pitched a [wonderful] ballgame.”

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