Correction to This Article
An Aug. 26 Sports column incorrectly said that Washington Nationals shortstop Cristian Guzman's contract will pay him $12.6 million over the next two years. He is due that salary over the next three years.

A Baseball Mirage

By Mike Wise
Friday, August 26, 2005

The Washington Nationals are turning into a three-month Rehoboth romance. What began as a June infatuation morphed into a genuine love affair by early July. But the doubts festered in August. You saw them for who they really were. And by Labor Day weekend, the truth will hit hard: Frank Robinson's club was merely something for the summer.

Following their series loss to a Cincinnati Reds club that is, oh, 21 games back in the National League Central Division, it is time to finally let them go, to appreciate the Nats for what they were, a very engaging first-half-of-the-season bunch that did not have enough oomph or pixie dust to last.

"I don't want to talk baseball right now," a fed-up Jose Vidro said after yesterday afternoon's 5-3 loss at RFK, making a go-away motion. "No baseball now."

Who can blame Vidro, who harmlessly singled once in five at-bats? The Nats are only 2 1/2 games back in the wild-card race with 35 games to play, meaning they have a lot of baseball left to secure the best record among non-divisional champions and be the fourth and last NL team to qualify for the postseason.

But in sports, there are usually three things that determine your worth: how you see yourself, how others see you and who you really are. The Nats want to believe they are a team that has not found "a consistent sense of urgency," as Brad Wilkerson put it often yesterday. The rest of baseball sees them as a punchless offense that miraculously found themselves on a pace to win 100 games in early July.

Who they are: a light-hitting club with a wafer-thin starting rotation that has been stuck in the same malaise since the all-star break, unable to gain any real ground on Philadelphia, Florida or Houston.

The Nats are treading water, winning one game and losing two often enough to kill any belief that they could catch any of those teams over the next month or even think about still catching Atlanta in the NL East. The Nats' next seven games are against the best two clubs in the NL, St. Louis and Atlanta. What gives the most optimistic among them any hope that they can win either of those series?

"It's a lot of baseball, a lot of baseball," Livan Hernandez kept saying, over and over, trying to convince himself.

Hernandez was once the ace of this staff, a pitcher whom Robinson could rely on to settle down and make it easy on himself for a few innings.

But he has had only one quality start -- going at least six innings and giving up three or fewer runs -- in his last five outings. Hernandez won 12 games before the all-star break and has won just two games since. Depending on your source, he is either tiring or his placement is a few centimeters off. Either way, when the best player on the Nats cannot carry the club every fifth day their October hopes diminish severely.

Best to look toward next season at this juncture, to ask three seminal questions that will help new ownership build a pennant-contending club a year from now:

1. Should Robinson return? Yes. Less than a week from turning 70, he's gotten more out of this lineup than most expected and has put to bed any notion that he has neither the fire nor managerial sense to stay in the game. He's the only manager Jose Guillen has ever truly responded to. He still engenders complete respect in the clubhouse. Questionable managerial moves aside and his lofty place in the game notwithstanding, Robinson has done enough to warrant at least another year with the Nats.

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