- The Washington Times - Friday, March 17, 2006

VIERA, Fla. — Frank Robinson walked into the Washington Nationals clubhouse at 9 a.m. yesterday, gathered his entire squad and made sure everyone was listening.

What followed wasn’t a chewing-out session. It didn’t get animated. Robinson didn’t raise his voice. Instead, the Nationals manager calmly but firmly reminded his players that Opening Day is little more than two weeks away.

“Come on, guys, it’s time,” he said. “Time to put it together. Time to tighten it up.”

Tighten it up — that was the best way Robinson could put it. Spring training has been going on for a month now, the games for two weeks. All the mental and physical mistakes have to stop, he stressed.

“There’s no reason why they can’t do it, no reason why they shouldn’t have done it before now,” Robinson said. “But this would be the time. Sloppy play is just not acceptable.”

Some seven hours later, Robinson was back in his office at Space Coast Stadium, the strains of Queen’s “We Are the Champions” still playing outside following the Nationals’ 8-2 exhibition win over the Detroit Tigers.

“We looked like a team out there today, a professional team,” he said. “It was good to see.”

Robinson hasn’t seen much of that this month. Even with yesterday’s victory over a Detroit split-squad that didn’t feature one recognizable name, Washington improved only to 4-13-1 against major league teams this spring.

Yes, it’s only spring training. But there has been some growing concern here about the lackluster performances displayed by the Nationals that some fear could carry over to the regular season.

“I think everybody’s got to sit down, look at the situation and ask what’s missing,” said pitcher John Patterson, one of the lone bright spots this spring. “If it’s intensity and it’s fire, then let’s go. You don’t want to open a season 4-13 when it really does count.”

There are any number of explanations for Washington’s uninspiring play, and some of them have been unavoidable.

Seven key members of this club left camp two weeks ago to participate in the World Baseball Classic: position players Alfonso Soriano, Brian Schneider and Alberto Castillo, plus pitchers Tony Armas Jr., Chad Cordero, Luis Ayala and Gary Majewski.

Only Armas, whose native Venezuela was eliminated Tuesday night, has returned. The right-hander, projected as one of the final members of Washington’s starting rotation, pitched in a minor league intrasquad game yesterday and is slated to make his Nationals debut Monday night.

Clearly, the Nationals would like to have the rest of those players back in Viera.

“Guys have said, ‘You’re having a terrible spring.’ And I say, ‘Yeah, but we don’t have the team together,’” Robinson said. “And it affects us more than other clubs because we’re not a deep club. We need our front-line players.”

Injuries, too, have prevented Washington from fielding its regular, projected lineup through the first 18 exhibition games.

Right fielder Jose Guillen has been battling back from left shoulder surgery as well as a recent flare-up of his left wrist. He’s due to make his long-awaited game debut Monday. Nick Johnson, Ryan Church and Ryan Zimmerman all returned yesterday after missing time with stomach viruses.

Shortstop Cristian Guzman, however, is not likely to return for some time, perhaps not even this season, after an MRI yesterday revealed he has a tear in his right shoulder. For now, the Nationals hope Guzman can build up the muscle around the tear and play through the injury. But club officials aren’t counting on that happening, so it appears veteran Royce Clayton will become the regular shortstop.

“Hopefully, the last two weeks of the spring it starts coming together and we start playing like a team,” Guillen said. “But we’ve got to wait till we’ve got everyone here. It will be interesting to see once we have the whole team.”

So some of the Nationals’ struggles can be attributed to personnel losses. But not all of them. Robinson said yesterday that’s not an excuse for his club’s shoddy defensive play and lack of overall concentration, which he said has resulted in a slew of missed signs on the bases and in the batter’s box.

Put it all together, and the 70-year-old manager is left scratching his head over the state of his ballclub.

“This is the most unsmooth spring training I’ve ever had,” he said. “It’s like you’re disjointed.”

Robinson made that convoluted statement early in the morning, before the Nationals went out and played one of their better games of the spring. By the end of the afternoon, there were some better vibes in the clubhouse as all involved perhaps sensed the switch has been flipped and the stretch run to Opening Day has begun.

“Today was a lot better day,” Church said. “It was a step in the right direction.”

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To submit a question, go to the https://www.washingtontimes.com/sports>Sports Page

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