- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 3, 2005

It’s hard to imagine given the way this club was assembled and has performed all season, but the Washington Nationals have a pitching crisis on their hands right now.

It’s also hard to believe, given their generally upbeat tone all year, but the Nationals might have a clubhouse crisis on their hands as well.

Which make games like last night’s 7-1 thrashing by the Philadelphia Phillies practically inevitable. As, perhaps, is the Nationals’ ultimate demise — they now trail the Phillies in the wild-card race by four games.

No team can make a serious run at the pennant with three-fifths of a starting rotation, an overtaxed bullpen and an increasingly frustrated clubhouse. Which is exactly what manager Frank Robinson is trying to do at the moment.

He’s trying to get quality pitching performances from a staff held together with duct tape. And he’s trying to re-establish authority over a clubhouse he seems to be starting to lose.

The latest evidence came yesterday when cleanup hitter Jose Guillen was taken out of the starting lineup. Robinson insisted he was simply giving the ailing Guillen a much-needed day off, but sources close to the situation said the right fielder asked out of the lineup because of clubhouse policies instituted by the manager during a closed-door meeting following Thursday’s defeat in Atlanta.

Robinson, upset over several mental errors during that 8-7 loss to the Braves, told his players they no longer would be allowed to listen to music, watch television or play cards or video games in the clubhouse. That apparently didn’t sit well with several players, including Guillen.

“Talk to Frank,” Guillen said yesterday. “I cannot comment on it.”

Said Robinson: “He tells me [how he’s feeling], and I make the decision.”

Either way, Nationals players acknowledge their clubhouse seems to have lost the life and energy that once was omnipresent — and at a time when their season hangs in the balance.

“I think it’s getting a little ridiculous, to tell you the truth,” outfielder Brad Wilkerson said. “We’ve got to realize what we’re playing for. Now’s the time to want it more than anything. … I’m very surprised about the attitude and stuff that’s happening. It seems like the willingness to go out there and give it all you’ve got to win is just not there.”

It doesn’t help matters when the pitching staff, the unquestioned strength of this team all season, finds itself on the verge of collapse because of injuries and ineffectiveness.

With Ryan Drese out for the year with a torn labrum and Tony Armas Jr. still active but battling a bum shoulder of his own, Robinson had no choice but to hand the ball last night to John Halama for only his third start of the season.

The result wasn’t pretty — Halama was tagged for six runs over three innings, effectively sealing his team’s fate. This came one night after Armas was pounded for seven runs over four innings in an 8-7 loss to the Braves.

“The thing about the pitching staff right now, it’s taxed,” Robinson said. “It’s overtaxed. It’s tired. The bullpen has been out there on a daily basis and is overworked. It’s being asked to give you six or seven innings a ballgame, and it’s showing up.”

If that wasn’t scary enough, consider this: With no reasonable alternative for their rotation, the Nationals appear to have no choice but to keep handing the ball to Halama and Armas every fifth day the rest of the season.

“We don’t have starting pitchers here,” Robinson said. “I have nobody else.”

Which, as anyone among the crowd of 28,939 at RFK Stadium last night — smallest since June10 — would agree, is a disheartening thought.

The Nationals (69-66) entered this weekend series against the wild-card leaders knowing there was little margin for error. So when they found themselves trailing 6-1 after three innings, there already was a sense of defeat circling around the ballpark.

The biggest blast off Halama (0-2) came courtesy of David Bell, who belted a 1-0 sinker over the left-field fence in the third inning for his first career grand slam after 127 previous at-bats with the bases loaded.

“I didn’t feel mechanically sound,” said Halama, who wound up putting six straight men on base and walked Phillies pitcher Vicente Padilla on four pitches during the five-run inning. “The third inning, I just collapsed.”

Under normal circumstances, a manager might not have left his starter out there to take the beating. But Robinson is also dealing with a banged-up relief corps that was without Luis Ayala (elbow tendinitis), Gary Majewski and Jason Bergmann (both overused).

Ultimately, left-hander Mike Stanton was forced to come on in relief for the fourth time in three days. That’s what happens when you get just one quality start in your last seven games (by Livan Hernandez on Wednesday night).

“You know what? Games are won and lost in your rotation,” Stanton said. “The rotation has been great all year. We just ran into a little bit of a tough time.”

If they don’t snap out of it soon, the Nationals will have all winter to think about it.

“If we give it all we have and come up short, then I can go home this offseason and work on next year,” Wilkerson said. “But if I had to go home right now, I wouldn’t feel that way.”

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