- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 7, 2005

SAN FRANCISCO — First, the good news: the Washington Nationals continue to play solid baseball, defeating the San Francisco Giants 9-3 last night to improve to 3-1 on their nine-game West Coast trip.

Now, the bad news: They may be winning games out West, but they’re losing players at an even more astounding rate.

With reliever Joey Eischen and left fielder Terrmel Sledge already landing on the disabled list this week, the Nationals were forced to finish last night’s game without the services of Jose Vidro (ankle) and Jose Guillen (elbow) — the heart and soul of their lineup.

Vidro was never available, held out because of the left ankle he injured sliding into home plate Wednesday night in Los Angeles. The second baseman will undergo an MRI today to determine the extent of the damage, but the club has already said he’s likely to miss three-to-five days.

Guillen was in the lineup last night but left in the seventh inning after getting drilled on his left arm by Giants reliever Tyler Walker. The right fielder fell to the ground in a heap upon getting plunked, was helped back to the dugout by assistant trainer Scott Lawrenson. Guillen was diagnosed with a bruised left triceps muscle (X-rays were negative) and his status is day-to-day.

With the Nationals’ clubhouse now looking more like a M*A*S*H unit, it’s a wonder manager Frank Robinson has been able to find nine healthy bodies to pencil into his lineup. Yet the more they get beat up, the more resolve the Nationals seem to show and the more unlikely heroes seem to emerge.

Last night’s primary savior was long reliever Jon Rauch, called into duty after another shaky start by Tomo Ohka. Though he walked four, the 6-foot-11 right-hander did not give up a run or a hit in three innings and wound up earning his first win, two nights after taking his first loss.

Rauch got plenty of help from Washington’s lineup, which exploded for four runs in the third inning and five more in the eighth — the last three coming on a bases-loaded double by Ryan Church, Guillen’s replacement in right field. Church’s shot to the left-center gap was the final blow and left many in the crowd of 40,425 at SBC Park heading for the exits.

The big outbursts came despite the Nationals’ modified lineup, with Jamey Carroll replacing Vidro at second base and left fielder Jeffrey Hammonds and catcher Gary Bennett inserted to face Giants left-hander Noah Lowry. With Vidro out, Guillen was bumped to the No. 3 spot in the lineup, with Vinny Castilla hitting cleanup for the first time this year.

The unusual look delivered an unusual outcome: The Nationals actually put together a big inning early in the game, plating four runs on six hits during the explosive top of the third.

There weren’t many hard-hit balls against Lowry, but there were plenty of well-placed ones. Brad Wilkerson dropped a beauty of a bunt down the third-base line to load the bases with one out. Carroll followed with a cue-shot to right-field, bringing the first run home. An opposite-field double by Castilla scored two more, and a run-scoring bouncer up the middle by Johnson completed the rally.

Lowry (1-3) settled down after that and actually pitched a decent 6[2/3] innings. But, the young left-hander departed with his team trailing. Ohka, on the other hand, left with his team winning, yet was not nearly as effective as his counterpart.

With six shutout innings his last time out, Ohka appeared to have erased any questions about his health and his ability to throw strikes. Those questions had to resurface last night, though, because the Japanese right-hander clearly reverted to his old self.

Routinely falling behind hitters, Ohka threw first-pitch balls to 13 of the 19 batters he faced. By the time he departed, he had thrown more balls (36) than strikes (35), plenty of those pitches coming during a torturous second inning in which the Giants’ first four hitters reached base, two of them scoring.

The Nationals did their best to bail Ohka out, batting around during their four-run third to give their starter a 4-2 lead and new life. He didn’t take advantage of it.

Ohka came out in the bottom of the third and immediately threw two straight balls to Deivi Cruz. His next pitch was a strike — a meatball down the heart of the plate — and Cruz launched it into the left-field bleachers to cut Washington’s lead to 4-3.

One inning later, Ohka walked Lowry on five pitches, prompting Rauch to get up in the bullpen for the third time. And even though Ohka got out of the fourth unscathed, Robinson had already made up his mind — when the Nationals took the field in the fifth, Rauch took the mound. Ohka took a seat in the dugout, ineligible to earn the victory because he did not last the requisite five innings.

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