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Now Playing: Dawn of the Dead

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.

For the Nats, now 76-71, that would mean a 10-5 finish, although 9-6 might get them into a one-game playoff. Is it conceivable? Sure. But what's now actually quite clear is that, if the Nats return to RFK Stadium next week in one piece after a three-game weekend trip to San Diego, they're probably -- against all common sense -- going to be alive and raising hell in the final week.

"A lot of people outside [the team] think we are done," Castilla said. "We're not. Every game now is a playoff game for us."

All this is as preposterous as it is delightful. As the Nats headed for their plane to the West Coast, laughter followed them through the bowels of Shea. All the team's rookies, you see, were dressed in drag -- a hazing ritual on most big league teams.

Ryan Zimmerman, whose pinch-hit single started a game-saving rally in the ninth inning, wore a trim red-and-black, above-the-knee ensemble that, unfortunately, could not be zipped in back because his shoulders were too broad. "They ain't supposed to fit," cackled vet Brian Schneider. Gary Majewski, who got the save in relief of overworked Chad Cordero, wore a frock suitable for a frontier woman. He was lucky. Tony Blanco got the skin-tight black leather mini-skirt.

On so many other getaway days since July 4, such humor from the Nats might have fallen flat. Is their timing better? Could their luck be changing? Certainly, few teams have seemed more snake-bitten, and deservedly slump-ridden, for longer.

Time after time for 11 weeks, the Nats have had their heads handed to them, their hearts kicked around and their spirits dragged through the infield dirt. They've come back from 0-8 to 8-8, and 1-7 to 7-7, only to lose in 10 innings both times. They came back from 0-6 to lead 7-6 with two outs in the ninth Sunday, only to lose 9-7. Their best efforts invariably led to their worst kick-in-the-gut defeats. Games like this one at Shea were exactly the kind they usually found a way to lose or have taken.

At one point, the Nationals lost 13 one-run games in a row, the major league record for such exasperation. They've lost on the road on a "balk-off" and a "walk-off." Twice since July 1, they've lost 1-0. Not since May 7 have they scored 10 runs and had the satisfaction of beating the pulp out of a foe. Almost every game feels like one-run torture. The starting rotation has been destroyed. Only three men remain standing. A 10-man bullpen, all worked beyond any sane limits, somehow manages to fill the necessary innings. For this group, the idea of losing more than 1,100 man-games to injury seems like a normal fate, not a plague. Naturally, Jose Vidro, the club's best-known player, is out again, 70 games missed and counting.

Who knows what feeds this bizarre bunch, what pleasures suffice to keep them clawing? Major League Baseball has chiseled them on an extra budget for late-season call-ups. Half their fans can't even see half their games on TV. The national media regards their wild-card chances as ephemeral. Most have written multiple obits. Me, at least one.

Yet, if they somehow win two of three this weekend, Washington will be up to its eyeballs in wild-card mania by the time Barry Bonds and the Giants arrive Tuesday. If they get swept in San Diego, they'll just be dead again. What else is new?

Actually, what's quite new is the idea that the Nationals, who have stabilized their play and gone 17-16 since Aug. 11, might actually have a providential enough schedule and enough mediocre pressure-plagued opponents that . . . oh, don't even say it. If you do, the Nats will just end up floating face down in the Pacific, and we'll have to do all this again.

Instead, let Robinson say it. "A lot of people don't actually think we can win" the wild card, he said after his office had cleared out to watch the rookie fashion show. "But we can. We need some help. But if we take care of our own business and keep winning, we'll be all right. Because everybody is playing everybody else, and, every night, somebody is going to lose."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company