- The Washington Times - Friday, March 24, 2006

VIERA, Fla. — Frank Robinson was lamenting his team’s continued poor play through an eventful spring training yesterday morning when the Washington Nationals manager was asked the following question:

With the Nationals set to break camp in one week, is it possible this team won’t be ready for Opening Day?

“Let’s hope that we are,” Robinson said. “Let’s hope there’s some type of miracle, somebody feels sorry for us, puts a little blessing over the ballclub. Then all of the sudden we wake up like Cinderella or somebody and this is all a bad dream and we start doing the things we feel like we’re capable of doing. That’s playing good, fundamental baseball.”

Perhaps someone did sprinkle some magic fairy dust on Robinson’s club yesterday, and that would explain its 1-0 exhibition victory over the Baltimore Orioles. Never mind that Washington won the game, though given its 6-17-1 spring record that shouldn’t be discounted.

What was more pleasing to Robinson was the way his Nationals played a clean, crisp ballgame. No errors after committing 39 in their previous 23 games. Outstanding pitching from starter Ramon Ortiz, who desperately needed it after a shaky few weeks in Florida. And none of the mental lapses that had become so commonplace over the last month.

“This is probably the best one we’ve played [this spring],” Robinson said afterward. “Hopefully, now we can put some of them together and get something going.”

It’s about time. After slogging their way through five weeks of injuries, controversies and plenty of ugly losses, the Nationals now find themselves reaching the point of no return. They break camp Thursday, head north for a home-and-home exhibition series with the Orioles and then meet the Mets on April 3 at Shea Stadium.

If they manage to right themselves by then, it will be no small task. Seemingly nothing has gone Washington’s way from the moment pitchers and catchers first arrived in Viera some five weeks ago.

There have been injuries, major injuries at that. Starter Brian Lawrence blew out his shoulder during his first bullpen session with the club and underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum and rotator cuff. Utilityman Robert Fick also needed surgery to remove bone chips from his right elbow, though he’s expected back at some point in April.

Shortstop Cristian Guzman came down with a shoulder tear of his own, and though a final decision has not been made, it appears he will need surgery and will miss a large portion of the season.

There have been false alarms as well, most memorably with right fielder Jose Guillen, who was told one day he would miss three months with an injured wrist before the diagnosis was reduced to 10 days by two other doctors.

Those who have avoided injuries haven’t been able to avoid other setbacks, such as the seven players who left camp to participate in the World Baseball Classic and now find themselves trying to catch up to the rest of their teammates.

“I’m not going to be as ready as I’ve been in the past,” said catcher Brian Schneider, who got minimal playing time for Team USA. “I’m not going to have as many at-bats as I want to have. But I think before long, I’ll be OK.”

Not everyone who left camp for the WBC returned in top form. Reliever Luis Ayala, whom the club begged not to pitch for his native Mexico, sprained his elbow and will undergo season-ending “Tommy John” surgery.

And as if all those maladies weren’t enough, Alfonso Soriano reported back to the club Monday, dwarfing every other event of the spring. The ensuing 48 hours of hysteria turned Nationals camp into a circus until Soriano relented to the team’s request and agreed to move permanently from second base to left field.

Yesterday, at long last, a sense of normalcy seemed to return to camp. And not a moment too soon for this weary ballclub.

With all those distractions out of the way, Robinson believes he and his players can focus on the task at hand: getting their act together in time for the season.

If they can pull it off, perhaps the pain of the last five weeks will have been worth it.

“It’s been kind of a surreal atmosphere in this camp,” Robinson said. “It’s the first time I’ve ever come to spring training and I haven’t had a pretty good idea about what type of team I had. And I don’t like that feeling. I mean, it’s not a defeatist feeling, I’d just like to have a feel for the team. I don’t know it yet, and I don’t like that. Before we leave here, hopefully, I’ll have a better feel.”

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