- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Washington Nationals were the talk of baseball at the All-Star break last season with a 52-36 record and a 21/2-game lead in the National League East.

Now, however, the situation is as grim as it was pleasantly surprising a year ago. The Nationals are last in the division with a 38-52 record — 151/2 games out of first — as they resume play tomorrow night at Pittsburgh.

Manager Frank Robinson cited numerous reasons for his team’s regression.

“It’s been nothing that you could point your finger at and say, it’s the defense, it’s the hitting, it’s the starting pitching, it’s the bullpen,” Robinson said. “It’s been a little bit of everything, and this is why we’ve been so inconsistent.”

General manager Jim Bowden said the years of Major League Baseball’s ownership of the franchise have taken a toll.

“The reality is that the years of neglect in scouting and player development caught up to us. We knew that in the second half of last year [when the club went 31-50],” Bowden said.

Pitching, or the lack thereof, is the biggest single cause for the Nationals’ dramatic decline.

Ace Livan Hernandez is 6-8 with a 5.94 earned-run average after being 12-3 at this time last season — a performance that earned him a spot on the National League All-Star team. Closer Chad Cordero has 13 saves compared to 31 at last season’s halfway mark, when he also was named to the All-Star team. Granted, Cordero has had just 15 save opportunities.

“For me, personally, it was the best first half last year in my career,” said Hernandez, who underwent offseason knee surgery. “Every year I’m winning six, seven or eight games in the first half. I’m thinking the second half [this season] has got to be better. … It happens like that sometimes. I know I had an operation on my knee. It’s not 100 percent.”

Hernandez’s problem is just one of many on the staff.

Superb setup man Luis Ayala blew out his right elbow pitching for Mexico in March’s World Baseball Classic and was lost for the season. A year ago, Ayala was 7-5 at the All-Star break.

Starter Brian Lawrence, acquired in an offseason trade with the San Diego Padres for Vinny Castilla, blew out his right shoulder in spring training and won’t return until September at the earliest. The club had been counting on Lawrence to prop up the middle of the rotation.

The Nationals signed 36-year-old Pedro Astacio as a last-minute replacement, but Astacio injured his right arm in the final exhibition game. He has spent almost the entire first half on the disabled list, making just two starts.

“Our pitching staff in the first half was really depleted bad,” catcher Brian Schneider said. “We never got to count on Brian Lawrence, count on Astacio … and then [we had to] rely on two rookies to start. That’s not an easy thing to overcome.”

Especially when the No. 2 starter also is hurt.

John Patterson had a breakout season last year, producing a 9-7 record with a 3.13 ERA despite having 15-no-decisions. However, he missed nearly two months in the first half of 2006 because of a right forearm strain. Patterson has made just eight starts and left Sunday after the first inning with more arm trouble.

Right-hander Ryan Drese underwent offseason shoulder surgery and made just two appearances this season before injuring his right elbow. Left-handed reliever Joey Eischen was lost for the season in late May after tearing his left rotator cuff.

The situation was further complicated by the offseason losses through free agency of Esteban Loaiza and Hector Carrasco, who won a combined 17 games last year. Carrasco could start or come out of the bullpen and was reliable in either role.

“Me and Livan and Loaiza all stayed healthy pretty much throughout the whole year,” Patterson said of last season. “[Tony] Armas was on and off the DL, but when he did pitch, [he] pitched well. It gave us some starters to work with, and the majority of the time we all went deep into the game, which took the pressure off the bullpen. [This season’s injuries] really did change the look of the rotation and put some stress on the bullpen, where they haven’t been able to fall into roles like last year.”

Elsewhere, the lineup has undergone four key changes. Rookie Ryan Zimmerman was installed at third base and veteran Royce Clayton at shortstop, replacing Castilla and injured Cristian Guzman, respectively. Alfonso Soriano, acquired from the Texas Rangers, became the left fielder, and center field has been handled by committee.

Soriano (.272, 27 home runs, 20 doubles, 56 RBI) has been a lethal offensive threat and surpassed expectations. Soriano, who switched from second base to left field at the Nationals’ urging in spring training, was the club’s lone All-Star.

“Just because I had a [good] first half, it doesn’t matter,” Soriano said. “We have to win and have a better record.”

Otherwise, Robinson — in his 16th season as a major league manager and his fifth with the franchise at age 70 — has been forced to juggle his lineup while searching for the right ingredients to win.

“I think it took a while for Frank to kind of figure out the chemistry of what is successful for us to jell offensively,” Clayton said. “You had a lot of different personalities, a lot of different faces on this team.”

Right fielder Jose Guillen, hampered by injuries and batting just .211, also figures into the Nationals’ decline. Guillen was the club’s top offensive threat last season, leading the club in runs, hits, total bases, home runs and RBI.

Not everything went wrong for the Nationals in the first half. Zimmerman (.287, 12 homers, 26 doubles, 59 RBI) has emerged as a leading candidate for NL rookie of the year. Soriano has been spectacular. Rookie pitchers Mike O’Connor (3-6, 4.32 ERA), Shawn Hill (1-3, 4.66) and reliever Bill Bray (1-1, 3.91) have had their moments.

A 17-7 run from mid-May to early June showed the club can play good baseball. The Nationals climbed within four games of .500 before slumping again.

“We really fought ourselves back into respectability as far as the .500 mark is concerned in a short period of time — three weeks — and that’s pretty good. Then we let it kind of slide back,” Robinson said. “Lose a game or two? Yeah. OK, fine. Then you come back and win one or two ballgames. We gave almost half of [the improvement] back in a short period of time.”

Staff writer Mark Zuckerman contributed to this article.

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