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By Thomas Boswell
Friday, September 16, 2005

NEW YORK

Somebody tell these guys they're dead. Display the Nationals' headstone in their locker room. Hand out "Washington R.I.P" T-shirts. But what good would it do? Somehow, the undead Nats never get the memo. Or the autopsy.

Yes, they're alive -- alive again. How many times is that, and what exactly is the record?

But this time is different. This time, after a three-game sweep of the Mets, the Nats are just a handful of games -- the next nine, to be precise, all against teams with losing records -- from being smack in the center of final-week, wild-card madness.

Above all, this resuscitation may be different because Frank Robinson, the 70-year-old with the set jaw, the hard stare and the sharp tongue, says it might be. Not for sure, mind you, but just maybe. For Frank, who gags on optimism, that's a mouthful.

"This might be the one we needed to get over the hump before this thing is over," said Robinson, whose team is 2 1/2 games out of the wild-card lead after Thursday's 6-5, 10-inning victory.

"We beat two teams today. We beat the Mets and ourselves," added Robinson, who watched Livan Hernandez squander a 4-1 lead by allowing a grand slam, who saw his team tie the score in the ninth thanks to two Mets errors and who, finally, saw his team win because Mets Manager Willie Randolph got a brain cramp and pitched to Vinny Castilla (315 career homers) with a man on third, two outs, first base open and the Nats' last available catcher, Keith Osik (0 for 1 in '05), on deck.

Castilla, naturally, drove in the winning run with a single to right field on the very first pitch. Why wait? At any instant the Mets might have regained consciousness and ordered the obligatory intentional walk. Thus, by the Mets' largesse, were those back-to-back homers by Chipper and Andruw Jones last Sunday at RFK negated, at least as far as the standings are concerned.

At this point in a season, one gift victory can be enormously important because every team has developed an exact sense of what will be required to reach October.

Baseball vets, with endless hours to spare during a pennant race, take out schedules, their own and their foes, and try to figure out how many victories, give or take one, will be required to make the playoffs. It's not a science, but for those, like Robinson, who've practiced the art for 50 years, the guesstimating can become mighty exact by mid-September.

"Eighty-six has been my number for a while now," Robinson said. Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel, another old hand, has also fingered 86. For what it's worth (much less), it's my number, too.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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