- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 8, 2006

HOUSTON — The starting rotation isn’t pitching enough innings. The starting lineup isn’t producing enough runs. And starting right fielder Jose Guillen may not be able to give them anything for a while after getting hit by another pitch.

Clearly, this is not the way the Washington Nationals wanted to open this season.

The latest example was a 6-1 loss to the Houston Astros last night before 26,978 at Minute Maid Park, a game that began as a pitchers’ duel but quickly devolved into a blowout as the Nationals’ bullpen imploded. Washington (1-3) managed just five hits.

Guillen was forced to leave the game in the sixth inning after taking a Brandon Backe pitch off his left arm.

It was the fourth time Guillen was hit by a pitch in his last 11 plate appearances, and this one was the most painful. One night after charging the mound upon getting drilled by Mets ace Pedro Martinez, Guillen had no response for Backe. He was too busy clutching his arm in a crouch at the plate as manager Frank Robinson and assistant trainer Mike McGowan rushed to check on him.

After a brief examination, Guillen walked off the field under his own power and headed straight for the Washington clubhouse. X-rays came back negative, and Guillen was diagnosed with a left forearm contusion. His status is day-to-day, but Robinson said he would keep him out of the lineup tonight.

“It’s pretty sore,” Guillen said. “I got lucky, It didn’t hit my wrist. But I’ll be fine. … I know what I need to do.”

The loss of Guillen for any period of time would be a significant blow to a Nationals lineup that has produced very little. Last night, Jose Vidro hit his first home run since Aug. 10 (which also came in Houston), but that was all Washington could muster against Backe and two relievers.

“It wasn’t a good offensive night,” Robinson said. “We didn’t have too many good at-bats tonight. You can’t do much with one run.”

There are no shortage of Nationals hitters with issues right now. Catcher Brian Schneider doesn’t have a hit in 13 at-bats and still hasn’t hit the ball out of the infield. Leadoff man Brandon Watson is 2-for-16 with a walk. And rookie third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, after a hot start, has seven strikeouts in his last nine plate appearances.

“Once they get the butterflies out of their heads, they’ll be fine,” Vidro said of the two rookies. “I went through that. The first couple of games you try to do too much. I don’t know if that’s the case, but it looks like that, because they’re swinging at really bad pitches. But they’re both good players, and I think they’re going to bounce back. It’s only four games.”

Still, one run and five hits isn’t going to win many games, unless the starting rotation is dominant. And Washington’s is not.

After two straight sub-par outings from John Patterson and Ramon Ortiz, the Nationals needed a solid showing last night from No. 4 starter Tony Armas Jr. The last thing Robinson needed this early in the season was an overworked bullpen.

Armas partially held up his part of the bargain. Making his first start since Sept. 1, after which he finally succumbed to the pain in his right shoulder, he allowed only two runs on four hits.

Trouble is, Armas still hasn’t completely built up his arm strength following offseason surgery, so he was good for five innings and 72 pitches last night.

“I’m going to be very careful with him,” Robinson said.

Replied Armas: “It’s the first game of the season, and he’s definitely taking care of me. … But I’m ready. Everything is good.”

The extra care with Armas meant another early call to the Washington bullpen, and the results weren’t pretty. Rookie Jason Bergmann, a candidate to be sent down tomorrow when starter Ryan Drese is activated from the disabled list, allowed all six batters he faced in the sixth to reach base and gave up a pair of towering home runs that blew the game wide open.

Lance Berkman connected first, sending a two-run shot to right on a hanging 0-2 curveball. A couple of batters later, Bergmann buzzed ex-Nationals center fielder Preston Wilson with a high-and-tight fastball, perhaps an homage to Guillen sitting back in the trainer’s room. Wilson, though, wasn’t fazed. He belted Bergmann’s 2-0 fastball to deep left-center for another two-run homer, making it 6-1.

And when Bergmann walked and plunked Houston’s next two batters, Robinson had seen enough. He pulled the struggling right-hander, whose season ERA jumped from 0.00 to 54.00 in an instant.

“This is my first bad outing,” Bergmann said. “With the good comes the bad, you know? You can’t be great all the time. Ask any guy in this locker room. I’m sure they’ve had a bad day before.”

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To submit a question, go to the Sports Page

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