Friday, May 26, 2006

Frank Robinson is as stoic as they get. Rarely does the Washington Nationals manager and baseball legend let his guard down and offer a glimpse into his softer, emotional side.

Make no mistake, though, it’s there. Fifty years in this game hasn’t completely stripped Robinson of his tenderness and appreciation for those he cares about.

And when this 70-year-old giant of his sport broke down into tears following yesterday’s 8-5 victory over the Houston Astros, it offered outsiders a rare opportunity to see just how much Robinson cares about his players, his team and this game.

Try as he might to hold back the tears during his postgame press conference, Robinson couldn’t help it as he discussed his decision to pull third-string catcher Matt LeCroy during the top of the seventh inning.

“I’ve never had that happen before,” Robinson said, choking up. “And I don’t like someone to go through what he had to go through today. I feel for people who have to go through something like that. But I couldn’t do anything about it. I feel for him, and I hope the fans understand.”

LeCroy, one of the most popular and well-respected players in Washington’s clubhouse, was living a nightmare right in front of 24,733 spectators at RFK Stadium. Taking advantage of his throwing deficiencies, the Astros successfully stole seven bases — the most in any major league game in four years — and goaded him into two throwing errors.

Thus, what was shaping up to be a rout by the Nationals (who led 7-1 after three innings) was slowly and painfully turning into a competitive ballgame. By the seventh, it had become too much for Robinson to handle anymore. With runners on the corners and the Astros threatening to come all the way back to tie the game, he summoned emergency catcher Robert Fick from the bench to replace LeCroy in a most unceremonious fashion.

LeCroy said he understood the situation. The only reason he was catching at all was that Washington’s regular starter, Brian Schneider, was still one day from being eligible to come off the disabled list while top backup Wiki Gonzalez was sidelined with a mild concussion he suffered the night before.

“I don’t blame him,” said LeCroy, who has not thrown out any of the 20 opposing players who have tried to steal on him this season. “He had to do something to try to get them to stop running. … I’m man enough to take it. I don’t think he should get that emotional about it. He’s doing his job, just like I would do if I was in that position.”

Perhaps Robinson wouldn’t have felt so bad had the situation not involved a player he respects so much. There are a handful of guys inside the Nationals clubhouse who have given their manager everything they’ve got throughout this painful season, and Robinson wants to make sure they know how much he appreciates their effort.

“They had nothing to do with what happened in that ballgame,” he said. “That was my responsibility. I didn’t do all I should have done before the ballgame.”

Truth be told, there really wasn’t anything Robinson could have done. Schneider, out since May 11 with a strained hamstring, isn’t eligible to return until today. Gonzalez has had his own problems behind the plate and wasn’t available anyway because of his concussion.

The Nationals knew that, which explains why they remained in complete support of LeCroy and their manager despite yesterday’s near-catastrophe.

“He’s out there trying,” second baseman Jose Vidro said. “You’ve really got to give him that. I know it didn’t look good for him, but I never question one of my teammates. I know he’s out there trying.”

The catching fiasco ultimately didn’t cost the Nationals their fifth win in six days because of they way they jumped all over Houston starter Andy Pettitte for seven runs in three innings and the way they hung on by getting great bullpen work and some dazzling defense.

Washington right-hander Tony Armas Jr. was not in top form, giving up nine hits and three walks in only 51/3 innings, but he showed mettle in insisting to Robinson that he could start the sixth inning even though he had thrown 93 pitches.

Armas (5-2) couldn’t get out of the inning, but rookie Saul Rivera bailed him out in his major league debut before handing the rest over to the Nationals’ stalwart relievers. Jon Rauch, still suffering from food poisoning that caused him to vomit during Monday’s game, gutted out the seventh inning allowing only one run to score. Gary Majewski, pitching for the fourth straight day, continued his recent upswing with a scoreless eighth (aided by Alfonso Soriano’s league-leading eighth outfield assist on an inning-ending double play). And Chad Cordero made quick work of the ninth, earning his seventh save (fourth in eight days).

“We shouldn’t have had to do the things we did today to pull that game out,” Robinson said. “The guys kept their heads up. They kept going out there, they kept battling.”

And, as they’ve showed during this recent upturn, they can win when they play as a team. Yesterday, the first six batters in Washington’s lineup combined for 11 hits. Two hit sacrifice flies, another dropped a sacrifice bunt.

“People are doing things,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “Grounding out to the right side to move people over. Tagging up from first to get to second on fly balls. Soriano steals third so Vidro can hit him in. It’s just contagious when everyone plays for each other and everyone wants to win for each other that much more.”

And that, more than anything else, may explain why a stoic, 70-year-old man who last summer called himself “The Intimidator” was reduced to tears by the end of yesterday’s game.

As Robinson summed it up, “I just appreciate the effort they put out today.”

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