Houston, We Have A Problem

By Carla Peay
Updated: July 24, 2005

Washington NationalsHOUSTON, TX.—The Washington Nationals, despite going 2-6 since the All-Star break, were still able to look at the standings and see themselves in first place. Only now, they were no longer alone atop the leader board. Thirteen-time National League East division champ Atlanta was sitting right there with them. And on a steamy Friday evening at RFK in front of an announced crowd of 38,019, the slumping Nationals had to face one of the greatest pitchers of all time in Roger Clemens.

Less than two weeks from his 43rd birthday, Clemens is aging better than a fine wine, with an unheard of ERA of 0.31. His record entering the game of 7-4 is a testament to his lack of run support. Clemens teammates would be the first to say that he should be more like 15-2, perhaps even 20-0. But run support was no problem on this night, as the visiting Astros hung 14 runs on the board, handing the Nationals and their anemic offense their worst loss of the season, 14-1.

With flashbulbs going off at nearly every pitch, Clemens turned in a stellar performance, striking out 10 before leaving in the 6th inning with an 8-0 lead. Nationals starter Ryan Drese also went 6 innings, giving up 6 runs, 5 of them earned. Drese faced one batter in the seventh before being replaced by reliever Sun Woo “Sunny” Kim, with two runners on. At that point, the wheels came off the wagon, as Kim went on to give up 8 runs in 1 and 2/3 innings before being replaced by Luis Ayala.

The Nationals lone run came in the 8th inning when outfielder Ryan Church doubled off reliever Dan Wheeler to score 3rd baseman Carlos Baerga. The blowout loss is an unusual one for the team known as the ‘one-run wonders’. Despite their recent slump, the team still leads the major league in one-run victories. Even in loses, the team is generally able to keep the game close. But all the little things that went right for the team in the first half are not going right for them now, and an offensive spark is sorely needed to help get this team back on track.

Help should come quickly in the return of 1st baseman Nick Johnson, one of the team’s steadiest producers, who has been out with a bone bruise in his right heel since the 27th of June. Johnson is slated to begin a rehab assignment as early as Saturday, and could rejoin the team as early as Tuesday, when they head to Atlanta to begin a three game series against the Braves.

Also expected to return on Tuesday is 3rd baseman Vinny Castilla, who has been out of the starting lineup since July 19th in order to get some much needed rest for the tendonitis in his left knee. Although the two-time All-Star’s offensive numbers have fallen off just a bit this season, it is difficult to drive in runs when there are no base runners, and the Nationals are one of the lowest scoring teams in the league. Castilla lead the league in RBI last season with 131. Defensively, he is arguably the best 3rd baseman in the game. Castilla also leads all active 3rd basemen in career home runs with 309. Cavernous RFK Stadium has given up fewer home runs than any park in the major leagues, which could be having an impact on the power numbers of Castilla and right fielder Jose Guillen. Guillen, who leads the team in home runs with 19, has hit 18 of them on the road.

The Nationals will face the Astros for two more games at RFK, before heading off on the road to face division rivals Atlanta and Florida for two three-game series.