Nats are looking up at postseason scene

Hitting poor, pitching thin, Washington sits at bottom of this heap of contenders

Wild, Wild (nl) East

Dispatches from a division where every team is in the playoff race.

September 03, 2005|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Four teams separated by three games. All in the same division. All chasing the same wild-card spot.

On the downside for the Washington Nationals, entering last night's game against the Philadelphia Phillies, they sat at the bottom of the National League East, the only division in baseball with all its teams in the playoff hunt. The Atlanta Braves entered last night's play with a four-game lead in the East.

On the upside, they're home to play 10 games against three of the teams above them. So they can win their way right back up in one of the tightest playoff races of the past 30 years.

"You know this is a tough division and everybody's fighting for the same thing," said Nationals right fielder Brad Wilkerson before last night's game. "It's exciting."

The Nationals are, by most accounts, the least formidable of the bunch. Entering yesterday, they'd been outscored by 19 runs on the season, were last in the majors in runs and had gone 17-31 since July 8.

Their rotation has grown so thin that last night they used an emergency starter, John Halama. Halama was rocked for six runs on seven hits in three innings.

"We don't have starting pitchers here now," said manager Frank Robinson. "We have relief pitchers."

Asked if the team might have any better options on the farm, Robinson shook his head.

The Phillies entered last night's game up three games on the Nationals and armed with the kind of sluggers in Bobby Abreu and Pat Burrell that a Washington fan might envy.

The other wild-card contenders from the East, New York and Florida, look no less formidable. The Mets signed two shining lights from last year's playoffs, Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran. The Marlins have a Most Valuable Player candidate in Miguel Cabrera and a Cy Young contender in Dontrelle Willis, both of whom helped the club to a world title two years ago.

Robinson, by contrast, sounded a tad glum about his inexperienced crew, which he said lacks the spark that carried it to a first-half lead in the division.

"I don't get the same feel, that same electricity, that same energy" he said. "That is missing."

Asked why, Robinson said, "I don't know."

"I was never tired when I was in a pennant race," he said. "Never."

The team seemed loose enough yesterday. Veteran utility man Carlos Baerga belted out a tune in Spanish as he walked into the clubhouse. Some players talked fantasy football. Others giggled as they talked with their Phillies counterparts along the backstop.

Wilkerson, who singled in the first run last night, said players can't afford to think about how another few losses could put them out of the pennant race.

"You think about how you have to go out and do anything you can to win," he said.

Wilkerson said the team should strive to win every series, figuring seven wins on the 10-game homestand would put the Nats in the thick of the wild-card race. Robinson said he has no interest in such long-term thinking.

"I have no long-range plan," he said. "I have no month plan."

One recent arrival, infielder Rick Short, had a different perspective. Short was called up from New Orleans, which was dry when he left town but is under water six days later.

"To see these pictures, to see these places you were just at," he said. "Man, everything is destroyed. It hits home, it really does."

The 12-year minor league veteran said he didn't have any friends or family in the city but said he heard his former home ballpark and apartment complex weathered the storm better than most structures.

Short was having a memorable year, challenging to be the first full-season minor leaguer to hit .400 since 1962.

He finished his Triple-A season .383 and said he had no regrets about giving up the .400 chase.

"No, no, no, this is the ultimate goal," he said of playing in a pennant race. "This is why you play in Triple-A."

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