Robinson--Nats Must Bear Down

Fresh off a wildly successful week against two of their chief division rivals, the Nationals now face a new challenge: interleague play.



Washington, which won six of seven against the Atlanta Braves and Florida Marlins, hosts the Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners this week at RFK Stadium. Those two struggling AL West clubs may seem like a respite for the Nationals after their recent stretch against the National League's best, but manager Frank Robinson is plenty worried.

"We've got to really keep our focus, bear down and stay on top of things through this next week, because we're playing the American League and teams we haven't seen," Robinson said. "We're facing pitchers we haven't seen. It's going to be a tough week for us, but I think we'll be all right. We'll be prepared to handle it."

Washington has shown a propensity to struggle against supposedly inferior opposition. The Nationals lost two of three in Toronto and were swept in Cincinnati last month, a couple of harsh doses of reality for a club that prides itself on its daily preparation.

The Nationals do, however, have to feel as if everything's coming together these days. They're getting outstanding pitching from RHPs Livan Hernandez and Esteban Loaiza (who will each start against the A's this week) and just enough offense late in ballgames to eke out victories. Washington has 21 come-from-behind wins already this season, eight of them coming in the last at-bat.

"Maybe it's our comfort zone," OF Ryan Church said. "We know going late into the game, we can come back. We've been there, we've done that. We just have confidence."

NOTES, QUOTES

--OF Brad Wilkerson sat out Friday night's game against the Marlins with a sore right hand. Wilkerson believes the injury is related to the sore right forearm that sidelined him for three games last month. He didn't start Saturday or Sunday.

--RHP Claudio Vargas, designated for assignment on May 26, was claimed off waivers by the Arizona Diamondbacks. Vargas was 0-3 with a 9.24 ERA in four starts with the Nationals, but his best performance (one unearned run in six innings) was on May 11 ... against the Diamondbacks.

--SS Cristian Guzman, still struggling to reach the Mendoza line, was getting one-on-one help this weekend from Barry Larkin. Larkin, the former Cincinnati Reds All-Star shortstop, is a special assistant to Nationals GM Jim Bowden and was in the dugout in uniform Friday night for the first time this season.

--RHP Livan Hernandez threw a season-high 150 pitches Friday night, allowing two runs in nine innings against the Marlins, but wound up getting no decision. Hernandez, who leads the National League in innings pitched, also owns three of the top five pitch counts in baseball this year.

--1B Nick Johnson was back in the lineup Friday, one night after leaving the game with chest pains. Johnson was having a hard time breathing, but it turns out he had acid reflux.

--OF Ryan Church was named NL Rookie of the Month after posting a .377 average, 11 RBI and a .508 slugging percentage in May. It was a staggering turnaround for Church, who hit just .174 in April but worked hard with Nationals hitting coach Tom McCraw to refine his approach at the plate.

--2B Jamey Carroll is playing every day for the first time in his major-league career, and he's beginning to be exposed. The replacement for injured Jose Vidro at second base, Carroll was hitting over .350 in early May but was 9 for his last 51 and entered Thursday night's game with a .245 average. Manager Frank Robinson said Carroll could use a couple of days off, but he has no other viable options at second base, so it appears Carroll will remain in the everyday lineup for the foreseeable future.

--C Gary Bennett matched his career high with five RBI in the Nationals' 8-6 win over Atlanta Thursday night. The backup catcher, starting in place of C Brian Schneider against LHP Horacio Ramirez, hit a two-run homer in the second inning, then hit a three-run double in the eighth to give Washington the lead for good. "It seems like it's someone different every night," Bennett said. "That's the key for us. We're not relying on one guy. We're just all trying to do our part."

--RHP Gary Majewski was tagged for four runs (three earned) Thursday night against Atlanta, the first runs the rookie reliever has surrendered in 16 innings. Majewski, though, was bailed out by his Nationals teammates, who rallied for five runs in the bottom of the eighth to beat the Braves, 8-6.

--SS Cristian Guzman was booed loudly by the home crowd at RFK Stadium Tuesday night after he twice grounded into inning-ending double plays and popped up on a two-out bunt attempt, lowering his batting average to .183. On Wednesday, manager Frank Robinson expressed his displeasure with Nationals fans for their actions. "I think it was totally off base and unfair to him," Robinson said. "I certainly don't think he deserves to be booed. They should get behind this kid. Why pick out one individual?"

--OF Ryan Church returned to the lineup after missing three games with a bruised calf. Church, who has been sharing time in left field with Marlon Byrd, doubled in his first at-bat Wednesday, sending a hard grounder past first base to drive in the Nationals' first run.

--LHP C.J. Nitkowski had a 27.00 ERA in his first three appearances with the Nationals and was running out of time to keep his job. But Washington's only left-hander came back strong Wednesday night against Atlanta, retiring all three batters he faced. Nitkowski also retired his first left-handed hitter in four tries.

--RHP Tony Armas Jr. turned in his first solid start since May 16, allowing two runs on six hits in six innings Wednesday night against the Braves. Armas, though, missed out on a chance to earn his second win of the season after Washington's usually reliable bullpen surrendered three runs in the eighth inning.

--1B Wil Cordero made his first game appearance since the first week of the season Wednesday night, grounding out as a pinch-hitter with two outs in the ninth inning of Washington's 5-4 loss to Atlanta. Cordero, who has come back from arthroscopic knee surgery, has yet to play in the field.

BY THE NUMBERS: 21 -- Nationals' come-from-behind victories already this season.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I've said it before, but it's true: That guy fires me up." -- 2B Jamey Carroll, on RF Jose Guillen, whose eighth-inning pep talk Thursday night helped propel the Nationals to an 8-6, comeback victory over the Braves.

Capitol Dugout Top Stories