Nats haven't mastered late-season two-step

One-win, one-loss routine won't fill Washington's postseason dance card

Wild, Wild (nl) East

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

Baseball

September 11, 2005|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Washington Nationals entered yesterday a team reborn.

It wasn't just that they ended a three-game losing streak Friday against the division-leading Atlanta Braves. It was how they did it, coming back from a 6-2 deficit with a pair of two-run doubles in the eighth.

"It's amazing what one win'll do for you," said manager Frank Robinson. "It looked like we were ready for the gallows the other day."

But, as has been the case in recent weeks, the Nationals couldn't keep the good times rolling. They had their rotation anchor, Livan Hernandez, on the mound yesterday, but Andruw Jones and rookie Brian McCann homered off Hernandez in the fourth and Nationals hitters couldn't muster a second straight comeback.

It's been like that on this 10-game homestand, which ends today against the Braves. The Nationals look ready to drop out of the playoff race, then they pull off a big win to revive hopes. Then they fall back again.

"We just don't put two games together," Robinson said. "It just doesn't seem like we have the ability to do that."

One columnist had, in fact, buried the Nationals in print Friday, but after the win that night and a Houston loss, they lurked three games behind in a wild-card race that also includes the Florida Marlins and Philadelphia Phillies.

The win brought fans back to the first half of the season, when the team routinely pulled out one- and two-run thrillers. After closer Chad Cordero struck out the last Brave, 36,000 roared as the Nationals bounded onto the field.

The previous two games against the Marlins couldn't have gone much worse. The Marlins pounded a fleet of Nationals relievers Wednesday and did the same the next day to John Patterson, the developing ace whom Robinson had hoped could be his stopper.

Friday's game looked like more of the same after Jones hit a three-run homer off another starter Robinson had counted on, Esteban Loaiza. But the bullpen held the Braves, and outfielders Brad Wilkerson and Jose Guillen delivered the biggest hits they've had in quite awhile.

Hernandez, was exactly the man Robinson wanted pitching yesterday, despite the fact the right-hander was 0-10 with a 6.08 ERA in his previous 14 outings against the Braves.

Hernandez doesn't have the best stuff on the Nationals staff. He walks too many batters and has no reliable strikeout pitch. But he's the one starter who has said without reservation that he'll pitch as much as Robinson needs.

"I'm the kind of player who likes to win, and I'll do anything to win," Hernandez said the other day, explaining his workhorse philosophy. "There are no more Septembers. We don't have any more chances."

The 30-year-old Cuban never looks uncomfortable. Where other pitchers slip into the clubhouse and sit quietly before starts, Hernandez swaggers in, his eyes hidden by sunglasses, the lights flashing off his diamond earrings and enormous, diamond-encrusted watch. He shouts and throws handshakes and hugs to visitors.

Robinson said Hernandez would've been known as a junkballer in his day, but he said it admiringly.

"He's one of these pitchers who when he's out there and he's in trouble, he feels like he can invent a pitch," Robinson said. "He finds a way to stop the onslaught and right the ship."

Hernandez had done just that the last time he pitched, carrying a shutout into the ninth inning for the team's lone win against Florida. He showed his best improvisational form in the early innings yesterday, fooling Braves hitters with a mix of 60-mph curlicues and 87-mph darts.

But Hernandez's guile didn't trick Jones, who slammed an opposite field-homer, his 47th, as part of a mounting campaign for National League Most Valuable Player. McCann, one of the Braves' 12-rookie brigade, drove the stake a little deeper into Hernandez's heart with a three-run shot.

The Nationals now face the daunting prospect of trying to regain their spark against Atlanta's veteran ace, John Smoltz. The Braves will face the same committee of relievers that faltered in consecutive outings against the Marlins, because the Nationals have no fourth or fifth starter.

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