Giving Away Games in the Worst Way

By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The gnawing pressure of radically revised expectations finally hit the Washington Nationals last night in RFK Stadium.

Before this 5-4, ninth-inning, kick-in-the-gut defeat to the abysmal Colorado Rockies, the pressure of first place -- coupled with the delight at being the toast of Washington and the surprise of the sport -- had not disoriented the ex-Expos too badly. True, a two-week slump had gotten the team's full attention, especially an ominously symbolic "balk off" loss last Friday.

This time, however, the full meaning of having a Shock The World opportunity, and seeing it start to slip quickly away, grabbed the Nats right in the throat. They choked this one away. Gagged. Spit the bit. Here, take it, we don't want it.

All teams under pressure in pennant races choke a few games away. The $200 million Yankees did it for two months -- April and May -- when Alex Rodriguez fielded as if Theo Epstein had tied his shoelaces together. But the Nats, until recent days, and especially last night, hadn't had the misery of seeing themselves at their absolute comical worst.

"Ask them. Has the lead got their butts tight?" said Manager Frank Robinson. "I can't answer that. I can answer almost anything else. But I can't answer that." Then he muttered something like, "They don't want to hear what I'd say."

Every so-called Surprise Team has this harsh confrontation with reality. And it often happens as the 100-game mark approaches and it's actually possible to envision what sort of finish to the season might be enough to make the playoffs. For example, entering last night's game, if the Nats could finish 35-35, they'd win 88 games; considering how thoroughly mediocre the probable wild-card competition looks among the Phillies, Marlins, Mets, Cubs and Astros -- none of whom is more than three games over .500 or has outscored the league by more than a paltry 17 runs -- the Nationals' chances looked realistic.

"We don't have to be spectacular," said Robinson before the game, adding of the 35-35 goal, "we can do better than that."

However, being spectacular is not the Nats' problem at present. Among themselves, they have to confront how addled their play has become, how many fundamental mistakes they have been making for the last two weeks (3-9) and, finally, how the pernicious pressure has infected them sufficiently that it has even contaminated their trademark crisp fielding.

"Can't catch the ball. Can't execute," said Robinson. "Catch the ball and throw it. You shouldn't go into a slump in that."

This game's deciding play came in the top of the ninth with a Rockie on third and two outs. A routine grounder was hit to third baseman Vinny Castilla's left. Perhaps his aching left knee bothered him, though he wouldn't make that excuse. "I just missed it," he said. So did shortstop Cristian Guzman, who should have hit the dirt to try to keep the ball in the infield instead of trying to field it in position to throw.

As the ball trickled into short left field, closer Chad Cordero, almost the only Nats stalwart who hasn't been infected by the recent malaise, was charged with a defeat on an unearned run.

"Man, that was an ugly game," said backup catcher Gary Bennett. "I don't think the lead is making us tight. I have no reason to believe that. We're still in a good spot [in the standings]. As long as we realize that and don't panic, we'll be all right. It's easy to be happy when you're winning. Now we'll see if we're still a tight unit when we're going through a rough patch."

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