Nats Come Up On Short End

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By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 8, 2005

They hadn't packed their bags under these circumstances since late April, heading to Union Station to catch a train, carrying three losses in their last four games. The Washington Nationals' lineup yesterday at RFK Stadium -- where storm clouds gathered following the New York Mets' 3-2 victory in 11 innings -- included a cleanup hitter, Carlos Baerga, whose most recent home run came last August. It included a left fielder, Matt Cepicky, who entered the game without a major league hit this season. And it was without the men who, after the all-star break, should hit third, fourth and fifth.

When pinch hitter Wil Cordero -- who has six hits in 47 at-bats this season -- flew out to left against Mets closer Braden Looper to end the game and send an announced crowd of 44,492 home, the tissue-thin nature of the Nationals' roster was apparent. No Nick Johnson, out with a bruised heel. No Jose Guillen at the start, out with what the team called bronchitis. No Ryan Church, out with shoulder problems. And no more places to look for one-run magic.

"Anybody needs their big guns out there," third baseman Vinny Castilla said. "Anybody. Any team."

Yet the Nationals spent the better part of two months winning without one big gun or another, and still managed to work their way into first place in the National League East. This week, it became too much. The series against the Mets was the first the Nationals have lost at home since April 25-27 against Philadelphia. Since then, nine straight teams have come to RFK and left with more losses than wins. But the Mets' ability to squeak by the Nationals in Washington -- they won three of four but never scored more than five runs -- cut the Nats' lead to 2 1/2 games over the Atlanta Braves.

So there was an unfamiliar sense in the clubhouse yesterday. Even before the game, Manager Frank Robinson called the remaining games before the all-star break "probably as big a four games as we've played all year long." Considering the outcome yesterday, the three-game series in Philadelphia this weekend is extremely important.

"That's the thing," outfielder Marlon Byrd said. "We got these two losses [in a row]. We can't settle with our record right now. The Braves are creeping up right behind us, and everyone else. We've got to get some wins."

The Mets got their win by scoring the tie-breaking run off reliever Luis Ayala in the top of the 11th, a bloop single to right by Mike Piazza that sent Carlos Beltran home from second. It was exactly the kind of hit the Nationals couldn't get in this series, one they felt was there for the taking. It proved to be the difference in precisely the kind of game on which they have built their division lead. One-run games have been their specialty, and they had won their last 12.

But all the things that went into those wins went against the Nationals yesterday, and in this series. Start with a shot Castilla hit to left-center in the second. "I crushed that ball," Castilla said. Yet it hit at the very top of the wall, a double. The inning ended when Byrd grounded into a double play.

Then, with the game tied 2-2 -- and Nationals starter Tony Armas Jr. on his way to seven solid innings -- came the two key moments. In the bottom of the fifth, Cepicky -- up this week from Class AAA New Orleans -- hit a leadoff double. Armas had one job: Bunt him to third. He missed on his first two attempts, and Robinson showed the importance of the situation by coming out of the dugout to speak to Armas himself. The message: Don't worry about direction. Just get the ball on the ground.

Yet Mets pitcher Kris Benson threw another cut fastball, and Armas fouled it off. Strike three.

"It's a tough pitch to bunt," Armas said.

Brad Wilkerson followed by flying to center. No big deal? With a successful bunt, it could have been a tie-breaking sacrifice fly.

Then, the other turning point. After an infield single and a walk loaded the bases with two outs, Baerga -- playing first base because Johnson is out -- stepped to the plate, a chance to prove he deserved to hit fourth for a day. Benson missed with a ball, then threw a strike. Baerga sent it, taut as a telephone wire, to right field, the liner that could have scored three runs.

It landed a foot foul. On another day, in another series, it might not have mattered. But Baerga ended up bouncing back to the pitcher, and the threat was over.

"We couldn't get the big hit," Wilkerson said.

The only remaining opportunity came in the ninth, when Guillen came up to pinch hit with runners on first and second. It has been an eventful week for the Nationals' right fielder, who was outraged that he was hit by a Pedro Martinez pitch on Tuesday night, and the Nationals failed to retaliate. He exploded in the dugout that night. Robinson, though, said his absence from yesterday's starting lineup wasn't a disciplinary move.

"I feel bad the last three days," Guillen said.

His at-bat didn't make him feel much better. With an opportunity to win the game, he flew softly to center. Wilkerson followed by grounding into a fielder's choice on an awkward check swing, and the Nationals headed to play the Phillies without something they have carried in their luggage for much of the season: momentum.

"This will only be a lull if we go to Philadelphia and play the same way and get the same results," Robinson said. "You can lose three out of four, you know. But then, what happens after that? Do you bounce back, or continue to play the same way? We'll see."


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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