Defensive Lapses Drop Nats Further
Robinson Excoriates Team After Atlanta Takes a Two-Game Lead in NL East: Braves 4, Nationals 3
By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 28, 2005; E01
ATLANTA, July 27 -- The game was over for many minutes now but the white, steel door to the visitor's clubhouse at Turner Field remained closed. A security guard in a red and black shirt stood in front. Five minutes went by, 10 minutes, 15.
Inside, the Washington Nationals were feeling the fire of Frank Robinson.
Later, some of the Nationals' players called their manager's clubhouse address a "pep talk." Others said it was a "wakeup." But in the sweltering heat of a magical summer suddenly gone sour it was perhaps all he has left to pull his team from its free fall.
"I had seen him use some four-letter words before but this time he was very upset," third baseman Vinny Castilla said after the Nationals dropped their 15th game in the last 20 with a 4-3 loss to the Braves. "I had never seen him like that and I don't blame him."
They are beating themselves these days. The team that prided itself on fighting through games, that made every tough play and never committed an error in its way to a 5? game lead in the National League East at one point, can do nothing right. Even the pieces that were so dependable -- relief pitching and defense -- are failing them now.
In the two most important games of the year, the Nationals have all but beaten Atlanta in its own stadium only to somehow lose the game. Tuesday it was the bullpen that blew a 2-1 lead in the ninth. Wednesday night it was a defense that made one throwing error, dropped a throw that would have caught a player stealing and missed two routine popups in a leaden, rain-filled sky. In all, these incidents led directly to three of the Braves four runs.
"In the first half we found ways to win," catcher Brian Schneider said. "Now we're finding ways to lose."
Which is why Robinson was so furious after the game. He had been simmering during the evening, hollering from the dugout at the umpires when he thought they had missed a swinging strike, then glaring and shouting out toward shortstop Cristian Guzman after Guzman dropped the throw that would have caught Chipper Jones stealing in the eighth. It was an out that would have ended the inning, instead it became the run that won the game when Jeff Francoeur blooped a ball into short center field a batter later.
And when the game was over, he stomped into the clubhouse and began to rant about concepts such as energy, intensity and focus.
"Right now our opponents are taking more focused energy to the field," said reliever Joey Eischen, in offering a summation of what Robinson said. "We're major leaguers, not minor leaguers. We need to flip a switch."
At one point after the game, Robinson was asked if he thought his team was playing without a focus. He shook his head, no, saying the mistakes last night were physical not mental. But he would not completely discredit the point.
"Some of that has crept in there," he said.
Later, when asked if the players had heeded their manager, if his words had settled in, they all nodded. He is tough to ignore when he is angry.
And last night there were so many things for Robinson to rant about.
There was the first inning in which the Nationals were making Atlanta's starter Tim Hudson labor in the sticky heat. They drove home one run and had the bases loaded with one out -- only to have Castilla ground into a double play.
There was the fourth, when after the Braves' Marcus Giles homered off of starter Esteban Loaiza to tie the game, Andruw Jones hit a lazy popup behind first that Nick Johnson lost sight of. It dropped for a double. Jones later scored Atlanta's second run.
Then there was the pop fly in the seventh by Francoeur that Guzman never spotted. Francoeur eventually scored when Eischen threw a wild pitch.
All which ruined another excellent outing from Loaiza, a day after Livan Hernandez saw eight innings of one-run ball go to waste.
And still the Nationals fought their way back into the game, tying it with two walks and two singles in the top of the eighth only to have the Braves score the winning run when Guzman's drop of catcher Schneider's throw prolonged the inning and eventually led to the defeat.
The players all said the sky was difficult. Left fielder Preston Wilson said he never saw Giles's home run as it soared over his head, nor could he pick up the pop fly that fell behind Johnson a batter later. It was just that kind of night.
When asked later, Robinson said Guzman will continue to be the team's shortstop.
"If I'm still the manager he is," Robinson said. "If you see me tomorrow, he will be in the lineup."
But something is missing. Something big and it was clearly eating at the manager as he stood before his team delivering a rant he rarely gives.
"We don't have the people in the lineup right now that are consistently driving in the runs," he said.
The trade deadline is coming, his team is reeling, but help could be beyond the Nationals. There might not be much more they can do. This could well be the group for the rest of the year. And so the manager did his best to wake it up.