Technically, Nationals alive, but hope all but extinguished

ON BASEBALL

September 22, 2005|By DAN CONNOLLY

WASHINGTON -- There won't be an official proclamation for several more days.

Regardless, it's finally time to write off the Washington Nationals, the Freddy Kruegers of Major League Baseball.

We, the astute baseball media, kept saying they were done. And the plucky Nationals kept rising from the ashes with a streak just hot enough to propel them to the edges of the postseason race.

No longer.

The Nationals dropped their fourth straight last night, a lackluster, 5-1 defeat to Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants. It cemented a disastrous stretch that directly followed another one of those flashes of hope.

Washington had won four straight heading into Saturday night in San Diego. They were just 2 1/2 games out of the wild-card lead and were up 5-0 on the Padres in the ninth inning, prompting one season-long Nationals observer to think they had been resurrected again; that life No. 9 was springing into action.

Instead, the Nationals and their once unshakable closer, Chad Cordero, blew the lead. The Padres won in the 12th inning that night, 8-5. San Diego came back with a run in the ninth inning Sunday to win, 2-1. The Giants scored three runs in the ninth Tuesday to win, 4-3.

Three straight games, three straight late leads blown. In a season of rebound, those losses were devastating. Time already was running out.

Technically, it's not mathematically impossible for the Nationals to make the postseason. It is pretty close to Advanced Calculus II, though.

With last night's loss, the Nationals are six games behind the Houston Astros in the wild-card race with 10 to go - and two other teams sandwiched in between.

Although the Nationals may still proclaim they are in the race, the reality is a miracle likely would only get them into second place in the wild-card standings.

"We've got to win games. There's no point in getting desperate now," manager Frank Robinson said before last night's loss. "We have to win 11 games and hope Houston loses five or six, seven, eight, nine, 10. That's what we have to do."

Robinson is realistic about those unattainable prospects. So realistic that yesterday he talked about continuing to play his veterans through this weekend's series against the last-place New York Mets because he doesn't want his squad to drop into the NL East basement.

"I certainly prefer to finish fourth instead of fifth," Robinson said.

Doesn't exactly sound like a guy making postseason travel plans, does it? And who can blame him? Robinson watched his team jump out to an improbable, 50-31 start and a 5 1/2 -game lead in the division standings. Then all those high-wire, one-run victories caught up to them. They were 23-7 in games decided by one run through July 5; 7-22 since.

Overall, the team was 52-36 at the All-Star break. The Nationals are 25-39 in the second half and now just two games over .500 at 77-75.

Injuries have played a part. So has an overworked bullpen and an offense that morphed from pedestrian to anemic. Consequently, Robinson has been braced for an uneventful October for some time now.

"I look at this last half, the second half of the season. We just have not played good baseball," Robinson said. "You are not going to win too much if you are [14] games under .500 for half a season. That's what I look at. All we had to do is play decent baseball."

Nationals baseball, instead, has been largely uninspired since early July.

"After the start we got, that just kind of throws cold water completely on the whole season," Robinson said.

Like the Orioles, the Nationals weren't good enough on paper to legitimately earn a playoff spot, regardless of the quick start.

Unlike the Orioles, the Nationals at least hung around until the season's final 10 days. Robinson did a nice job keeping the players together. General manager Jim Bowden did a great job plugging the team's holes with little money and prospects.

The energetic D.C fan base was solid in supporting its new team, averaging more than 33,000 each night at outdated RFK stadium.

This honeymoon is over now, though.

The cruelty of a 162-game season has claimed another victim.

Maybe not officially, but realistically.

This time, that's for sure.

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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