- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 12, 2005

PHOENIX — If someone had told Frank Robinson 10 days ago that his Washington Nationals would go 5-4 on their western trip despite a multitude of injuries and other calamities, he would have taken it in a heartbeat.

Then the Nationals started winning games they weren’t supposed to win, and suddenly they had a chance to head home on a real high.

Which is why that 5-4 mark, while still positive, didn’t sound quite as impressive after a 3-2 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks last night.

“The good things we did on the first part of this trip, it just takes them and kind of throws them out the window,” Robinson said after his team dropped its second straight disappointing game at Bank One Ballpark. “It’s not a good feeling going home after losing these two ballgames.”

The mood inside the visitors clubhouse wasn’t all that jovial. But perhaps once the sting wears off from this loss, in which the Nationals wasted a fine pitching performance by Claudio Vargas, they will come to realize this trip was ultimately a success.

Despite losing outfielder Terrmel Sledge, second baseman Jose Vidro and shortstop Cristian Guzman to injuries, Washington still managed to take four of six from the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants before dropping two of three to the Diamondbacks. When the Nationals return to RFK Stadium tomorrow night to open a weekend series with the Chicago Cubs, they’ll still be 18-16 overall and comfortably in third place in the National League East.

“We could have won one or two more ballgames, but if you look at it overall, it was a good road trip,” third baseman Vinny Castilla said. “We’re playing pretty good baseball. We can’t hit in the clutch lately, but that will come around.”

One day after stranding 13 runners on base in a 4-3 loss to the Diamondbacks, the Nationals struggled to get much of anything going offensively. Carlos Baerga and Brian Schneider put together back-to-back doubles in the second to account for one run, and rookie Tony Blanco recorded his first career RBI with a seventh-inning single, but that was about it.

Even so, that should have been enough support for Vargas, who allowed only one unearned run over six innings in his first start of the year.

Vargas, out since spring training with a sprained right elbow, threw plenty hard, reaching the mid-90s with his fastball. And he threw strikes, failing to walk a batter in his six innings. Contrast that with the man he replaced in the rotation — Tomo Ohka, who has walked 19 in 30 innings — and it’s easy to see why Robinson wanted to make this change.

Like Tony Armas Jr., who tossed 52/3 innings of one-hit ball Tuesday night before surrendering a three-run homer to Arizona’s Troy Glaus, Vargas was in control from the start. He cruised through a 1-2-3 first inning, striking out Alex Cintron and Luis Gonzalez on nasty sliders and remained unscathed until the fifth when the Diamondbacks pushed across an unearned run.

Vargas allowed three straight singles, then got Cintron to line out to Castilla. In hindsight, Castilla should have held onto the ball and sent Vargas back to work with two outs. But instead he tried to double up Javier Vazquez at second, and his late throw bounced off Baerga’s glove for an error. Chris Snyder came around to score, and the game was tied 1-1.

“The throw was perfect,” Baerga said. “It kind of hit [Vazquez] a little bit, but that’s an easy play.”

Still, Vargas departed in the seventh with the Nationalas up 2-1, giving way to setup man Hector Carrasco. Carrasco has been nothing short of brilliant since joining the Nationals on April19, not allowing a run in his first eight innings. But he gave up a walk, a sacrifice and an RBI single to Craig Counsell, and the game was tied again.

One inning later, Jon Rauch (1-3) was tagged for three straight singles, the last a bullet to right field that scored Glaus with the winning run. Right fielder Jose Guillen appeared to have a chance to cut down Glaus at the plate, but his throw sailed well wide for an error.

Guillen took the blame for the bad throw, as well as for the Nationals’ struggles at the plate the last two nights.

“I’ve been [awful],” he said. “I haven’t handled key situations. I should have thrown the guy out today. … I’ve not been coming through the last two nights. That’s why they got me here, to win. I’m not coming through in those tough situations.”

Notes — Guzman, who missed the last two games with a strained hamstring, said he expects to be back in the starting lineup tomorrow night against the Cubs. Guzman worked out on the field before yesterday’s game and appeared improved since originally getting hurt. …

The addition of Vargas to the rotation, coupled with today’s off day, prompted the Nationals to juggle their rotation slightly. Esteban Loaiza will start tomorrow’s opener against the Cubs on normal rest and will be followed Saturday by Livan Hernandez, who is being moved up a slot to remain on a five-day schedule. That means John Patterson will pitch Sunday, seven days after his previous start. …

The Nationals have sold more than 111,000 tickets for the Cubs series, with another 100,000 sold for the following series against Milwaukee. About 13,000 tickets remain for tomorrow’s game against the Cubs, about 8,000 for Saturday’s contest and 4,500 for the Sunday finale.

• Staff writer Eric Fisher contributed to this article.

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