- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 11, 2006

HOUSTON — Given the difficult schedule to open the season — a seven-game road trip through New York and Houston — the Washington Nationals shouldn’t be terribly disappointed with their 2-5 record.

Nonetheless, it was difficult for this physically and mentally weary ballclub to take any satisfaction from the first week of this season, not when it could have so easily stolen another win or two before coming home.

“I thought we could have won more than two games,” second baseman Jose Vidro said after Washington’s 5-4, 12-inning loss to the Astros yesterday. “I don’t know what to say. I expect a lot from this ballclub. … Most of the games, we were right there. We just didn’t finish it up and take it to the next step.”

The Nationals boarded their charter flight for the District last night knowing they could have owned a winning record when they take the field at RFK Stadium today for their home opener against the Mets. At the least, they had to be upset after dropping yesterday’s game, one they looked poised to win after pinch-hitter Daryle Ward drilled a solo homer off Houston closer Brad Lidge in the 10th inning at Minute Maid Park.

They couldn’t seal the deal, though. Chad Cordero was tagged by Morgan Ensberg for a game-tying homer in the bottom of the inning — the Washington closer’s second home run surrendered in two days — and Mike Stanton gave up the winning run in the 12th on Eric Bruntlett’s sacrifice fly.

“We’ll be fine. It’s the beginning of the year,” said Cordero, who blew his first save opportunity of the year. “We’ve played the Mets and the Astros pretty well. We hung with them. We know we can play. It’s just coming out on the wrong end of a couple games.”

With manager Frank Robinson serving a one-game suspension for his involvement in last week’s beanball war at Shea Stadium, bench coach Eddie Rodriguez was left to direct the Nationals in the finale of their four-game series against the defending National League champions.

Robinson knew his suspension would be coming. He helped write the policy for Major League Baseball that requires a manager to sit out one game when his pitcher is ejected for hitting a batter after a warning. And he figured he would rather serve his time now than miss one of the Nationals’ first three home games later this week.

“That way it’s not hanging out there coming in out of the blue and I’d have to sit down,” Robinson said before the game. “I don’t want to sit down now. But it may not be a bad time.”

So the 70-year-old manager handed the reins to Rodriguez, his 47-year-old bench coach, who officially had managed just one other major league game in his life — a 7-4 win at Pittsburgh in June when Robinson served a similar one-game suspension for his tiff with Angels manager Mike Scioscia.

Rodriguez didn’t have to do much thinking through the first portion of the game, because everything sped along pretty smoothly. Nationals starter John Patterson surrendered early solo homers to Lance Berkman and Preston Wilson but otherwise pitched well in six innings and erased any concerns about his tight forearm.

Washington’s offense managed to keep Patterson from taking a loss by rallying to tie the game 3-3 in the fifth, the capper coming on Vidro’s second RBI single of the afternoon.

That set the stage for the real drama later in the afternoon. Despite some good scoring opportunities, neither team could capitalize and avoid extra innings.

Then Washington struck for what looked like the game-winner: Ward’s line-drive homer with one out in the 10th after Rodriguez shrewdly pulled back original pinch-hitter Marlon Anderson in favor of Ward, who was a better option to win the game with one swing.

“That helped our ballclub for the meantime, but at this point we needed more than one [run],” Ward said. “It really would have been nice to do it with a runner on base.”

That’s because with one out in the bottom of the inning, Ensberg took Cordero deep to right to tie it again. Robinson noted afterward that his young closer doesn’t look physically ready for the season.

“He’s not there yet, believe me,” Robinson said. “He’s throwing 85, 86 mph. He’s just not in game shape yet. His location is not good at all. And that’s another big key.”

Two innings later, the Astros pushed across the game-winning run.

Stanton allowed a leadoff double by Craig Biggio, then watched as Houston’s team leader took third on Willy Taveras’ sacrifice.

With one out, the winning run 90 feet away and sluggers Berkman and Ensberg coming up, Rodriguez made his second tough decision of the day. He chose to walk both players intentionally, loading the bases for pinch-hitter Bruntlett but setting up the possibility of an inning-ending double play.

“I’m going to take my chances with Bruntlett, an extra guy who doesn’t play every day,” Rodriguez said. “And we put ourselves in that position where we needed a ground ball … try to turn a double play. I’ll take my chances with that guy. Hard hit, turn two.”

Instead, Bruntlett hit a high fly ball to medium center field. Brandon Watson, who entered in the 11th as a defensive replacement for left fielder Alfonso Soriano, had to drift back a couple of steps to catch the ball. A perfect throw might have nailed Biggio at the plate, but Watson’s had a little arc under it, and the Nationals left town with another frustrating loss.

“We’ve played what, seven games? It’s too early [to be concerned],” Robinson said. “It’s not like we’re being overwhelmed. We’ve had opportunities to win some of these games that we’ve lost. Hopefully, we’ll get a big base hit or a well-pitched game and get us going.”

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