- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 18, 2006

CHICAGO — Who knows what was going on in Frank Robinson’s mind as he leaned against the dugout railing at Wrigley Field last night, watching his Washington Nationals slog their way through yet another feeble defeat?

Few could have faulted the 70-year-old manager, though, if he was questioning his own decision to watch this 5-0, one-hit loss to the Chicago Cubs in person. He certainly had a perfectly good reason not to.

“No, I’ve seen this act up close and in person before,” Robinson said.

Suffering from back spasms, Robinson was prepared to hand over managerial reins to bench coach Eddie Rodriguez for the night, only to emerge shortly before game time and proclaim himself healthy enough to work.

Robinson’s ballclub is anything but healthy right now, and not just physically. The Nationals appear to be just as beaten-down mentally, which is probably what happens when a team has lost six of seven, 17 of 23 and 27 of 40.

That last number represents Washington’s overall record this season, which has now reached the quarter-pole. At this rate, Robinson’s squad will finish 53-109.

But the Nationals’ most-pressing concern at the moment is an offense that has gone stagnant.

One night after getting shut out by Cubs workhorse Carlos Zambrano, they were whitewashed by rookie pitcher Sean Marshall. Marshall, who had made four starts at Class AA before surprisingly making Chicago’s rotation this spring, baffled Washington’s hitters like a seasoned veteran.

The lanky lefty retired the first 10 men he faced and carried a no-hitter into the sixth, giving the Wrigley Field crowd of 39,757 that waited out a 51-minute rain delay reason to hang around well into the night.

Once Alfonso Soriano lined a single to left to open the sixth, there was little intrigue remaining to this ballgame. The Nationals already trailed 4-0 and offered no reason to believe a dramatic rally would be forthcoming.

The Nationals might have known they were in for a strange day when two hours before game time, a sudden and violent hail storm struck the ballpark that delayed the game nearly an hour.

Things only got worse once the game started. While Marshall (3-1) was busy dominating the opposition, Nationals starter Zach Day was busy laboring against a Cubs lineup that looks far from imposing on paper.

Day wasn’t helped by his defense, which officially committed two errors but also committed the same kind of mental mistakes that have plagued this team for the last week.

Most of the troubles came in the bottom of the second, in which Jacque Jones doubled, advanced to third on a sacrifice bunt and then scored on Ronny Cedeno’s picture-perfect suicide squeeze.

Marshall was up next, and when he lofted a sinking liner toward shortstop, it appeared the Nationals might have recorded the all-important second out of the inning. Shortstop Damian Jackson, though, trapped the ball. Worse yet, he briefly looked toward the umpires to complain before finally throwing to first, too late to get Marshall.

That gaffe proved costly, because Todd Walker’s two-run single later might never have been possible had Jackson recorded the out earlier in the inning.

“Some weird things happened in that inning,” Day said. “I never really got comfortable out there.”

Things pretty much went downhill for Washington from there. Right fielder Jose Guillen was forced to leave in the fourth inning with a strained right hamstring. His status is day-to-day.

Then in the fifth, Robert Fick — making his first appearance of the season — was sent up to pinch-hit for Day, only to strike out looking at a 1-2 breaking ball from Marshall. He said something to plate umpire Marvin Hudson as he walked back toward the dugout and was immediately ejected.

Perhaps Fick actually had the right idea. Unlike Robinson, he knew this game wasn’t worth watching in person.

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To

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