After recovering from a major second-half slump, the Nationals are still in the thick of the playoff race.

Despite free fall, in good standing

Baseball Week

August 21, 2005|By DAN CONNOLLY | DAN CONNOLLY,SUN STAFF

THERE ARE ONLY 10 days left in August. There are only six weeks left in the baseball season.

It's time to accept it.

The Washington Nationals are not going away. Even though baseball logic says they should. Even though they don't have the big names or the impressive payroll.

The Nationals are a legitimate playoff contender.

Maybe you knew that weeks ago, months ago. The Nationals say they've known all season, since they began April with a nine-game road trip to Philadelphia, Florida and Atlanta and came back 5-4.

"That was an indication of what this team was all about, that we could hang with teams like the Braves and Marlins," said Nationals rookie outfielder Ryan Church. "I think that all carried over for the rest of that first half."

No question the Nationals were one of the best stories in the season's early going. But there's a reason rings aren't distributed in June. The strongest must survive 162 games. Pretenders wilt in the summer heat and are often too far back to make a real push in September (see Orioles, Baltimore).

The Nats had a 5 1/2 -game lead in the National League East on July 3 only to lose five of seven before the All-Star break. They then dropped 13 of their first 16 to start the second half.

That's what the critics were looking for.

"When we were going through that bad slide everybody was like, `Here we go. This is what we were talking about,' " Church said. "But I think we all regrouped and came together, and every day we are trying to prove everybody wrong. I think that just adds a little fuel to the fire."

The Nationals won five of seven heading into their weekend series against the New York Mets. They are legitimately in the wild-card hunt and still have an outside chance of wresting the division crown from the Braves. And 19 of their final 28 games are at home.

"Nobody believed in this team. Now, this team is [fighting for] second place, and people are saying, `Wow, they played great.' But in spring training nobody believed us," said team ace Livan Hernandez. "Now, nobody here cares what the people say because we have shown that this team can play baseball and play good."

Of the three surprise teams that are legitimately making a playoff push - the embarrassing National League West doesn't count - the Oakland Athletics and Cleveland Indians are unlikely but not completely unbelievable contenders. Both organizations rebuilt with talented young players who are peaking a little earlier than anticipated.

But the Nationals? They added several middling free agents to a squad that lost 95 games last season. One, shortstop Cristian Guzman, is still hitting under .200 and has been 2005's biggest free-agent bust. There have been plenty of other storm clouds here.

Hernandez considered having season-ending knee surgery last month. Enigmatic outfielder Jose Guillen, the team's best player, has an ailing left shoulder and a hair-trigger temper. Key regulars Nick Johnson and Jose Vidro have spent time on the disabled list. Guillen and outfielder Brad Wilkerson exchanged heated words during a two-hour team meeting. Yet the Nationals have seemingly rebounded from their midseason collapse.

"A lot of players are different, every player here has a different mentality," Guillen said. "But there is a great chemistry in this clubhouse and I think we all care."

He said Frank Robinson - who he believes should be the league's Manager of the Year - deserves kudos for keeping the team focused on its goal. Guillen also credits general manager Jim Bowden and president Tony Tavares for piecing the roster together with limited resources while Major League Baseball attempts to finally sell the team.

"We play with no owners. I bet you if we had owners they would get the pieces we needed hopefully to win everything," Guillen said. "But we are just doing our best with what we have."

How they are doing it exactly is a mystery.

The offense is among the league's worst in practically every key category. The pitching has been above average, but only Hernandez and closer Chad Cordero are impact pitchers. No one besides Hernandez has more than eight wins.

Still, it's late August and they've kept pace. It's late August and Washington can be begin preparing for a pennant race.

It's late August, and as Church says, "We're for real."

EXTRA BASES

Say what?

"I threw him a sinker that cut, a hanging curveball and a cutter that just sat there and spun. It was terrible. He must think I was Santa Claus after laying those three pitches in there for him."

Houston's Andy Pettitte after giving up three hits in a game last week to Chicago's Aramis Ramirez.

Who's he?

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