- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 28, 2005

ST. LOUIS — Stuck in the muck of their worst slump of the season, the last thing the Washington Nationals needed was a weekend series against one of baseball’s true powerhouses.

There’s nothing the Nationals can do about the schedule, though, so Frank Robinson’s bunch had no choice but to take on the mighty St. Louis Cardinals last night and try to play their way out of a weeklong funk.

Easier said than done. Washington simply couldn’t match the Cardinals’ lethal combination of clutch hitting and effective pitching, and was handed a 6-3 defeat before a rain-soaked crowd of 47,383 at Busch Stadium.

Losers of four straight, and six out of seven on their current road trip, the Nationals are a .500 ballclub (24-24) for the first time since April 28. They’ve also fallen into fourth place in the National League East for the first time in two weeks.

All that, and they still have two more games to play in St. Louis before heading home.

“This is becoming, obviously, a bad road trip for us,” catcher Brian Schneider said. “We just have to come out the next two days, try to salvage this trip and at least win one of these series.”

Truth be told, Washington probably played better baseball last night than during a three-game sweep in Cincinnati earlier in the week. The Nationals got big hits from Brad Wilkerson and Nick Johnson during a three-run third inning, and though their pitching was far from spectacular, they managed not to let things get out of hand.

Better baseball doesn’t mean winning baseball, though, and Washington still has a way to go to get back into that category. Not only must Robinson coax some more production out of his stagnant lineup, he must get more consistent performances from the back end of his starting rotation.

Topping that list is Tony Armas Jr., whose once-promising return from major shoulder surgery and a pulled groin has been sidetracked by back-to-back labored outings. Six days after getting tagged by Toronto for seven runs over seven innings, Armas last night walked five and gave up five runs over five innings, raising his ERA to 6.20.

“Walking people — that was his problem tonight,” Robinson said. “He put people on base that didn’t earn their way on.”

Armas (1-3) was a victim both of his own lack of control — he said he could not locate his slider — and Jim Edmonds’ big bat. The Cardinals center fielder launched a two-run homer to center in the first, then reached the warning track on a two-run double in the third.

By the time Edmonds came up again in the fifth, with two out and first base open, Robinson didn’t waste any time. He ordered Armas to intentionally walk the veteran slugger and pitch to John Mabry. Mabry promptly singled home the Cardinals’ fifth run, all but ending Armas’ night.

Edmonds wasn’t done either. He doubled off new reliever C.J. Nitkowski in the eighth to cap a 3-for-3 night.

“You can’t make a mistake with that guy,” Armas said. “He’s a great hitter.”

Given the ease with which they posted their three runs in the third, the Nationals might have been fooled into thinking they could engage the Cardinals in a slugfest. They were wrong.

Despite the early outburst, which featured Wilkerson’s RBI double down the first-base line and Johnson’s subsequent two-run double to right-center, Washington’s lineup looked no different than the one that limped its way through the last week. The Nationals managed only two other hits in six innings against Matt Morris: a blooper into left field by Vinny Castilla in the second and an infield single by Jose Guillen in the sixth.

Otherwise, they were stymied by Morris, who struck out four of the first five batters en route to his fifth win against no losses. Even when he got himself into trouble with runners on the corners and none out in the sixth, the right-hander pitched his way out of it by retiring Ryan Church, Castilla and Brian Schneider easily.

A 27-minute rain delay before the bottom of the seventh ended Morris’ night, but setup man Julian Tavarez picked right up where he left off. Jason Isringhausen then pitched the ninth to earn his 13th save.

“I was hoping [the third inning] was a good sign, and I was looking forward to putting more up on the board,” Robinson said. “But when you’re going the way we’re going, you know that’s not going to be enough. We’re just not doing it offensively right now. It’s as simple as that.”

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