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Nats Miss a Chance to Move Up
Win Streak Ends Quietly as Phillies Leapfrog Washington in Wild-Card Race: Phillies 4, Nationals 3

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 18, 2005

PHILADELPHIA, Aug. 17 -- Esteban Loaiza returned to the mound in the third inning Wednesday night, and his teammates had tied the game up. "Things change," Loaiza said, who gave up two more runs.

Carlos Baerga came to the plate in the seventh with a chance to tie the game again. "I've done it so many times before," Baerga said, yet with a man on third and just one out, he couldn't drive in the run.

And in the ninth, Preston Wilson faced Philadelphia Phillies closer Billy Wagner, hoping to keep a rally alive. "He got me," Wilson said, who struck out.

There were enough chances for the Washington Nationals to scrape out another victory at Citizens Bank Park, and all they managed was a 4-3 loss in front of 33,450 fans, who -- momentarily, at least -- put aside their thoughts of Terrell Owens and reminded themselves that their hometown baseball team is very much in a pennant race.

The loss snapped the Nationals' four-game winning streak and allowed the Phillies to pull into a tie for first with Houston in the race for the National League's wild-card playoff berth. The Nationals are 5 1/2 games behind the Atlanta Braves in the NL East and a half game back of both the Astros and the Phillies for the wild card, circumstances that could change drastically following a crucial doubleheader here on Thursday.

"Everything we do the rest of the year is big," Manager Frank Robinson said.

Which is why the Nationals found it so frustrating that in crucial situations Wednesday night, they simply couldn't deliver.

Start with Loaiza (7-9), who gave up four runs and 10 hits in 5 2/3 innings. He allowed the first two men he faced, Jimmy Rollins and Kenny Lofton, to slap singles in the first inning. Both scored, Lofton on a two-out double to Pat Burrell, and Loaiza was reeling almost immediately.

"All of my pitches were going right down the middle," Loaiza said. "My cutter. My sinker. My four-seamer. It wasn't going the direction I wanted it to go."

Neither did the remainder of his start. After the Nationals tied the game in the third on Vinny Castilla's ninth homer and a two-out single from Jose Vidro, Loaiza gave it right back, allowing Bobby Abreu a two-out, two-run double to put the Phillies up 4-2. Loaiza loaded the bases in the sixth before Robinson replaced him with right-hander Luis Ayala. In 25 starts this season, it was only the fifth time Loaiza has failed to complete six innings.

Yet the Nationals, who faded so fast in July they looked as if they might be a ghastly white by now, understand the situation, that each game and each run is important. So after Phillies starter Jon Lieber -- who gave up just three hits, all in the third inning -- was lifted after six innings, the Nationals tried to rally. Wilson led off with a single against reliever Ryan Madson and Brian Schneider doubled him to third. Castilla drove in Wilson with a sacrifice fly, giving him two RBI in a game for just the second time since July 16.

Then came the point when the game was all but decided. Shortstop Cristian Guzman had doubled in the third and stung a hard liner to first in the fifth, two of his best at-bats in some time. Yet in such a key spot, with Schneider on third and just one out, the stark reality is that Guzman is hitting just .190, including an unforgivable .111 with runners in scoring position. Robinson called on Baerga, the Nationals' best pinch hitter.

"I love that situation," Baerga said. "It was my time to tie the game."

Yet Madson threw a fastball up and in to Baerga, who swung feebly, sending the ball off the handle on a lazy arc to third baseman David Bell. Robinson then sent rookie Ryan Church to bat in the pitcher's spot. Church managed only a weak grounder to second, stranding Schneider at third, making him 3 for 21 (.143) as a pinch hitter.

"It's been kind of our bugaboo all year long, trying to get that man in from third base with less than two outs," Robinson said. "We didn't do the job tonight."

They didn't do the job in the ninth inning either, when Wagner came in to lock down his 28th save in 30 opportunities. Jose Guillen lined a single to left, providing a bit of hope. Wilson came up, a right-handed batter against the left-handed Wagner, who started firing fastballs. Wilson stayed on him, fouling two down the line, a couple back to the screen, 98 mph followed by 97.

Then, with two strikes, a slider.

"The most you can hope is to try to foul that pitch off," Wilson said, "and he finished me off with it."

Wilson's second strikeout of the night was followed by another from pinch hitter Tony Blanco, batting for the left-handed hitting Schneider, and a harmless grounder to third from Castilla. Ballgame, and the Phillies were back ahead of the Nationals.

In a quiet clubhouse afterward, General Manager Jim Bowden -- absent for the first seven games of this 13-game road trip -- sipped a soda and thought about those missed opportunities. Tough, indeed. But he thought more about the five weeks that had passed. When Bowden last saw his team, they were two games back in the wild card. Now, they could be in the lead by the end of Thursday.

"We had a rough month, and we're still standing," Bowden said. "It's like taking four knockout punches from Tyson, and yet you're still standing. That's pretty scary, when you can go through what we've gone through, and you're still standing. I think that's a good sign."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company