- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Just as it’s been for much of the last month, the Washington Nationals clubhouse was full of life yesterday afternoon. Some players joked around with each other, others watched the Brazil-Croatia World Cup match with keen interest and manager Frank Robinson pleaded with reporters to ask him more pre-game questions because he was in such a good mood.

This is the way it’s been for nearly a month now, with the Nationals playing good baseball and avoiding the kind of back-to-back losses that can sour a team’s mood in a hurry.

By evening’s end, it was all forgotten. After slogging their way through a 9-2 loss to the Colorado Rockies that was their ugliest in weeks, the Nationals’ mood was decidedly different.

The clubhouse was silent, save for the sound of players hurriedly dressing and leaving the park. And Robinson, whose team hadn’t lost two straight games this month, couldn’t hide his disappointment.

“I don’t feel good about it, because we didn’t play good baseball tonight,” the manager said. “Our offense was terrible, and the pitching wasn’t very good.”

That about summed up the Nationals’ most-lopsided game since an 11-2 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies on May 29. This one left the RFK Stadium crowd of 21,689 restless and concerned and left Robinson seething.

He might have been tempted to chew his players out but thought better of it as he walked back to his office.

“No, not tonight,” he said. “A wise old man said, ‘Keep your mouth shut when you’re upset. Because you might mis-speak.’”

Still, Robinson must figure out how to get his team back on track after dropping two straight to Colorado, which entered town with 13 losses in its last 18 games. The offense has totaled four runs the last two nights. And the pitching staff, which had been among baseball’s best in recent weeks, was shellacked by a Rockies lineup that boasted such luminaries as Ryan Spilborghs, Yorvit Torrealba and Choo Freeman.

Mike O’Connor suffered the brunt of the punishment, giving up six runs in 52/3 innings, a surprisingly poor effort from the usually reliable rookie.

For the past two months, O’Connor (3-4) had been the model of consistency, suggesting that his out-of-nowhere emergence was no fluke. In his first nine career starts, he had yet to give up more than three runs or pitch less than five innings.

So his middle-inning meltdown last night came as a bit of a shock. He retired 12 of the first 13 batters he faced, but couldn’t make it through a disastrous sixth while struggling to pitch out of the stretch.

A pair of two-run doubles (by Matt Holliday and Clint Barmes) did in O’Connor. The latter came on a first-pitch curveball that Robinson later called “terrible.” It proved to be O’Connor’s final pitch of the night, leading to a lonely walk back to the dugout, a new experience for the 25-year-old hurler.

“It’s definitely frustrating, probably the most frustrating outing I’ve had,” he said. “I was cruising along, pitching really well, and then all of a sudden they have that big inning.”

O’Connor will now have to prove he can respond to adversity, just as the Nationals’ lineup will have to prove it can bounce back from another fetid night at the plate. Left-hander Jeff Francis was the beneficiary Monday, allowing two runs and four hits in 62/3 innings. And Josh Fogg picked up right where his teammate left off yesterday, giving up just one run in six innings.

Washington had no answer for the veteran righty with the 43-46 career record despite several opportunities to break through. The Nationals left two men on in the first, left the bases loaded in the fourth and wound up stranding 11 runners in the game.

“This looked like the offense when we weren’t winning games,” Robinson said. “We get opportunities during the course of the game, we don’t do anything with it. … We just haven’t had real good at-bats the last two nights.”

Only Jose Vidro converted in the timely situation, smashing a one-out single to right to score Royce Clayton in the fifth. It was a welcome, albeit brief moment of hope for the Nationals, who had been waiting for Vidro to come through in that kind of situation. He had driven in just one run his previous nine games, just three in his last 14.

But even those good vibes were quickly tempered by concern after Vidro bruised his chest making a spectacular diving catch of Jamey Carroll’s sixth-inning liner. He remained in the game for another inning but was removed in the seventh to be examined by the team’s medical staff. His status is day-to-day.

The same might be said of the Nationals, who seem to have hit a small road block the last two days and now must overcome this bit of adversity before it snowballs.

“No one worries about that in this clubhouse,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “You can’t win them all. We’ve had two bad games in a row. Tomorrow we’ll come out and try to turn it around.”

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