The Wild Card Is a Do-able Proposition

By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, August 25, 2005

Since when did people around here grow so accustomed to winning they can turn their nose up at being 1 1/2 games out of a playoff spot? Since when did 1 1/2 games back with 36 remaining become the worst place in the world to be?

The Nationals aren't dead. They're just where they should want to be, hanging close with a bunch of home games between now and the end of the season, and nobody in all of baseball expecting them to do anything.

You think things can't change in a hurry? The White Sox lost eight games off a 15-game lead in 24 days. The Nationals don't have to make up that kind of ground. They don't have to be heroic or even prolific. They just have to win at home, the way they did against Cincinnati last night, the way they won at home in the first half of the season. "We don't have to win 10 straight," Manager Frank Robinson said afterward. "The teams [contending for the wild card] are mostly in the same division and playing each other the rest of the way."

One-and-a-half games back isn't where the Nationals hoped to be on July 3 when their lead in the NL East reached 5 1/2 games after sweeping the sorry Cubs in Chicago. But in the big picture, is sure isn't bad for a team that one year ago today knew it was about to be homeless, a team still without an owner, a team with the lowest payroll of anybody in contention in the National League. One-and-a-half games out starting the final week of August for this team? Even now it's a Disney flick, not some reason to wander into September hangdog. "I think that's why we don't see anybody in there panicking," Robinson said as he made a right turn into his team's dressing room.

"We have to do whatever it takes right now," Robinson said. "That's our rallying cry: whatever it takes. We have to put it together now. We can't win one, lose one, win one, lose two."

A quality start and some timely hitting is enough to do that and the Nationals, for a change, got both last night. Until he ran out of gas and allowed a two-run homer in the ninth, John Patterson pitched like an ace, getting himself out of a seventh-inning, bases-loaded, nobody-out jam without benefit of a double play. And he did that when the Nationals were clinging to a 2-1 lead. (Is it just me, or does Patterson, who already wears No. 22, arch his back and stand on the mound just like Jim Palmer? Doesn't he hold his hands high just like Palmer?)

Jose Guillen hit a go-ahead home run. Brian Schneider and Vinny Castilla drove in insurance runs in the seventh. The Nationals don't need to turn into mashers, and they probably couldn't if they wanted to. All they need is for two hitters to get hot for a month, whether we're talking Jose Vidro and Nick Johnson, or Guillen and Castilla.

We're not talking about catching the Braves to win the division, just playing well over the final month to challenge for the wild card. Oh yes, it 's do-able, very do-able.

Of course, any optimism would have to be based largely on the notion that the teams in this wild-card scrum are as flawed as the Nationals, perhaps more so.

The Astros are the A's of the National League. Houston looks impressive for long stretches but ultimately disappoints. Just like the A's. The Astros have already wasted one of the greatest pitching performances in the past 50 years. Roger Clemens, with his 1.56 ERA, has pitched well enough to be 23-3.

In only three of his 26 starts has he allowed more than two earned runs.

Instead, he's 11-6 and has been on the wrong end of shutouts seven times this season. The Houston hitters should be ashamed of themselves, sabotaging what otherwise would be perhaps the greatest pitching season since the mound was lowered in 1969. So don't tell me the Astros are world-beaters. Anemic in the best of times, that lineup is now without injured Jeff Bagwell.

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