- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 26, 2005

CINCINNATI — Rarely are baseball games won or lost in the first inning, and it wouldn’t be fair to pin the Washington Nationals’ 12-3 loss to the Cincinnati Reds yesterday on the opening 35 minutes at Great American Ball Park.

But the way things are going for the Nationals these days, it was hard not to conclude this game already was a lost cause after a demoralizing first inning that epitomized this club’s struggles.

Washington failed to score in the top half of the inning despite Brad Wilkerson’s leadoff double and the presence of emergency pitcher Matt Belisle on the mound for the Reds. Then came a two-run homer by Felipe Lopez off Claudio Vargas in the bottom half.

The Nationals might have trailed only 2-0 at the time, but there was little doubt they were headed for a three-game sweep at the hands of the lowly Reds. The remaining eight innings were necessary only to make the result official.

?We had an opportunity to get on them early, and we didn’t capitalize on it,? Wilkerson said. ?Then they come back, and they’re on top of us. … It’s tough.?

That’s been the story for the Nationals throughout what has become an abysmal road trip. They came to Cincinnati already having lost two of three to Toronto. Now they head to St. Louis needing to sweep the first-place Cardinals just to salvage a 4-5 record.

At 24-23 and with an astounding 11 players on the disabled list, Washington is in danger of falling to .500 for the first time since April28.

?We have to suck it up and not feel sorry for ourselves,? manager Frank Robinson said. ?We’re getting outhit. We’re getting outpitched. We’re getting outhustled. We’re getting outmanaged. We’re getting beaten in all phases of the game. So we just stick together and battle our way through this thing and hope we come out of it before Friday.

“It’s not the end of the season, by far.”

Maybe not, but even Robinson acknowledged before the game that the Nationals had to win this one “to stop the roof from falling in.”

If it hasn’t completely collapsed yet, it’s certainly teetering. A Washington club that played admirably through the season’s first 40 games despite all the injuries is now trying just to hang on, hoping simply to remain competitive until it is back to full strength.

“For the time being, we have to just do what we can, go with what we’ve got,” left fielder Ryan Church said. “But it does hurt. I mean, you want [Jose] Vidro in the lineup. You want [Vinny] Castilla in the lineup.”

The Nationals had neither yesterday. Vidro, of course, remains on the DL with a high ankle sprain and might be another month from returning. Castilla is on the active roster, but he’s battling a sore left knee and yesterday was given a chance to rest after playing 14 innings the night before.

Throw in catcher Brian Schneider, who’s battling tendinitis in his right knee and gave way to backup Gary Bennett yesterday, and it’s easy to see why Washington is having so much trouble scoring runs.

There’s no way to know whether the presence of any of those three would have made a difference in the first inning yesterday. The presence of Vidro, though, might well have kept Robinson from having No.2 hitter Jamey Carroll sacrifice Wilkerson to third in an effort to get something going.

“The lack of scoring, the way we’re going, a single run would be pretty good,” Robinson said.

The Nationals couldn’t even manage that. Belisle, a last-minute replacement for Aaron Harang (flu), struck out cleanup man Jose Guillen and got Church to ground out to end the inning and leave Wilkerson on third.

It was the lone blemish on an otherwise stellar day for Guillen, who later doubled and hit two home runs, but it was still bugging him afterward.

“Sometimes, I feel responsible for this club,” said Guillen, who is hitting just .152 with runners in scoring position. “Those guys in front of me are getting on base, and I’m not able to get it done. It happened yesterday, it happened two days ago, it happened today. They’re counting on me, and I’m not coming through. I know I hit two home runs, but we want to win. … If I had been able to come through, it would have been a different story.”

It also might have been a different story had Vargas not pitched so poorly that Robinson had to yank him with two out in the second inning.

Vargas (0-3, 9.24) gave no indication he was going to turn things around. He yielded a game-opening single to Ryan Freel (4-for-6), then the two-run homer to Lopez, then walked Ken Griffey Jr. before recording his first out. When he walked Lopez an inning later, his time was up, not only for the day but for the foreseeable future. Robinson said Vargas, who has pitched a total of 61/3 innings combined in his last three starts, will not remain in the rotation.

“Today I feel like I lost my concentration a little bit after the home run,” said Vargas, who had a long talk with Nationals special assistant and former pitcher Jose Rijo after the game. “I had a couple of bad outings. I have to keep working and keep my head up.”

Vargas was speaking for himself, but his teammates would be wise to take that advice themselves.

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