Wednesday, March 8, 2006

VIERA, Fla. — Any early concerns must come with this caveat: This is spring training, and these games don’t mean a thing.

But there have been some disturbing developments at Washington Nationals camp in the last few days, disturbing enough to cause the general manager to hold a 10-minute, closed-door meeting with his manager, then repeatedly declare himself “embarrassed” while promising massive changes in the next 48 hours.

Clearly, this is no longer just spring training.

“I don’t want to be embarrassed, that’s the only thing I ask,” general manager Jim Bowden said yesterday after his Nationals fell to 1-6-1 in spring training. “I don’t have any criticism about effort. I have no criticism about the work ethic. I just don’t want to be embarrassed, and I’ve been embarrassed the last two days.”

Bowden said that after watching his team lose 7-4 in 10 innings to the St. Louis Cardinals, a game that featured three Nationals errors, including one by center fielder Marlon Byrd that allowed the winning run to score. A day earlier, Washington slogged its way through an atrocious 22-12 loss to the Florida Marlins that Frank Robinson called “the worst game I’ve ever been associated with.”

Throw in an 11-1 split-squad loss to the Houston Astros on Monday, and the Nationals aren’t exactly playing crisp baseball less than four weeks from Opening Day.

Robinson, who walked into his office yesterday afternoon with Bowden already waiting for him, wasn’t as upset as his GM with this latest performance.

“Yesterday, everybody should be embarrassed,” he said. “But today, I wasn’t embarrassed. I just don’t understand why you can’t catch and throw the ball. … We should be able to make those plays. Am I embarrassed by it? Not really. I’m not upset about it, but I’d like us to be sharper.”

And that can be difficult when you’re playing mostly minor leaguers and others with little chance of cracking the 25-man roster as the Nationals have been doing. With seven players gone for up to three weeks at the World Baseball Classic and several others still recovering from injury, Washington has been fielding some thin squads during these early exhibitions (even with 69 players on the spring roster).

That’s especially true with the pitching staff, which to date has been made up mostly of names even the most ardent fan would struggle to recognize.

The Nationals have played a total of 10 exhibition games (including two against foreign clubs) yet have gotten only 162/3 innings out of pitchers with a reasonable shot at making the team. Seven veterans have yet to make their spring debuts, either because of injuries or the WBC: Tony Armas Jr., Pedro Astacio, Luis Ayala, Ryan Drese, Joey Eischen, Livan Hernandez and Gary Majewski.

That will change today, when both Hernandez and Astacio take the hill against the Florida Marlins.

And once today’s two split-squad games are over, the veterans figure to take on even more responsibility because the first round of cuts are coming.

“There’s going to be major cuts in the next 48 hours, dramatic numbers,” Bowden said. “We’ll start to get serious here. I mean, you’ve got to get people opportunities and at-bats and innings and try to do what you can that way. But it’s got to end because we don’t want to be embarrassed anymore. It’s time to step it up to the next gear.”

Nationals players seem to be getting the message.

Following Tuesday’s game, outfielder Ryan Church told the local paper: “We can’t be pulling this [stuff]. I mean, I can’t really speak for anybody else. You’ve just got to be ready to play. And we ain’t playing like it right now.”

Church toned his comments down yesterday, but he still made it clear he doesn’t find sloppy play acceptable, even in March.

“You can’t really base a lot of things off of spring training,” he said. “But yet you’ve still got to go out and put your work in, play the game right. That’s the biggest thing.”

The Nationals haven’t been playing the game right in recent days. They’re dropping routine pop-ups, throwing balls away, swinging at pitches out of the strike zone when they’re ahead in the count.

And that has the GM and the manager deciding it’s time to start looking like a major league team again.

“You have to try to play your kids some early,” Robinson said. “It also gives you a chance to see them in some game conditions and see what they might be able to do. But with that all said and done, yeah, there’s a point. And the point is coming pretty quickly now.”

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

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