- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 24, 2005

CINCINNATI — As admirable as their play has been in recent weeks, the Washington Nationals have known their ever-growing list of injuries was going to catch up to them eventually.

They can go only so far without a healthy Jose Vidro, Brad Wilkerson, Jose Guillen and Vinny Castilla, and that finally has become painfully obvious.

A battered and bruised Nationals club that managed to salvage one win over the weekend in Toronto couldn’t manage to beat a Cincinnati Reds team that until last night appeared on the verge of mutiny. Instead, the reeling Reds pounded Esteban Loaiza and rode Eric Milton’s eight stellar innings to a 5-3 victory before 17,630 at Great American Ball Park.

The Nationals fell to 1-3 in their nine-game trip, with their once-productive offense having gone silent in the last week. They have scored 19 runs over their last seven games, but nine of those came during Sunday’s finale against the Blue Jays, and none of them came during the first three innings.

?Too little, too late,? manager Frank Robinson said. ?We’re putting ourselves in a corner.?

Of course, it’s tough to score runs with the type of lineup Robinson has had to trot out each night.

The Washington manager arrived in Cincinnati wondering whether he even would have eight healthy bodies to put in the field behind Loaiza. He did, barely.

Wilkerson wasn’t available for the second straight day, still sidelined by an injured right forearm. An examination yesterday, however, revealed only irritation to the ulnar nerve, and Wilkerson could be back as soon as tonight. Castilla, who left Sunday’s game with a sore left knee, was available but wasn’t at full strength. Jeffrey Hammonds, who likely would have started in left field against Milton, is on the disabled list with a pulled hamstring. That left rookie Tony Blanco, a third baseman by trade, as Robinson’s starting left fielder.

Put it all together and the Nationals’ struggles last night shouldn’t have been all that surprising. Nor should the frustration that’s beginning to creep into the clubhouse.

“I’m sick, sick, sick, sick. I want to throw up,” said Guillen, who went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts as he tries to play through a bruised rib cage. “I don’t think I should be hitting third. I should be hitting ninth, behind the pitcher. Seriously. It makes me sick, the way I’m swinging.”

To the Nationals’ credit, they did their best to mount a late rally against the Reds after falling behind 5-0. Nick Johnson launched a solo homer off Milton in the sixth, and recently recalled infielder Brendan Harris drilled a two-run shot to left-center in the seventh to cut Cincinnati’s lead to two.

But that’s all Washington could muster, and it certainly wasn’t enough to overcome a surprisingly bad outing by Loaiza, who was tagged for five runs and 11 hits in five innings.

The veteran right-hander has been as close to a sure thing as the Nationals have had this season. In nine previous starts, Loaiza (1-3) had pitched at least six innings eight times, and he had given up three runs or less his last eight times out. He wasn’t himself last night.

“I left a lot of pitches right over the plate,” Loaiza said. “The ball was just going right down the middle, and they made contact.”

Milton, on the other hand, was spectacular. The former University of Maryland star came in with a 7.16 ERA and losses in his last three starts, but he pitched shutout ball for five innings before Johnson finally got to him in the sixth.

Despite his season-long struggles, not to mention his league-leading 17 homers surrendered this year, Milton (3-5) was left in for eight innings. Reds manager Dave Miley practically had no choice given the current state of his bullpen, which is now without closer Danny Graves, who was released yesterday in a surprising move.

Milton responded, pitching his way out of a two-on jam in the eighth by striking out Blanco looking. David Weathers pitched the ninth to earn his first save, though the Nationals were more upset with their failure to produce earlier in the evening.

“That’s why it’s so important that we try to get something on the board early,” Robinson said. “It puts an awful lot of pressure on our pitchers to hold the other team down, night after night after night after night.”

The pressure will be on staff ace Livan Hernandez tonight. It was supposed to be on John Patterson in tomorrow’s series finale, but the right-hander will miss his second straight start after a back treatment session yesterday went awry and left his right wrist inflamed.

Patterson received three injections in his back to relieve the spasms that have bothered him for more than a week. The third injection, though, left him woozy, and the subsequent IV he received in his right wrist left him without range of motion.

After all that, he will be unable to pitch tomorrow. Struggling right-hander Claudio Vargas will start in his place.

“It was a crazy day,” Patterson said. “My back feels great. It was just kind of a fluke thing.”

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