Losses Leave Nats Doubled Over

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 19, 2005

SAN DIEGO, Sept. 18 -- They replayed the moments on the mammoth scoreboard in left field Sunday afternoon, and those fresh highlights from the night before were met with throaty cheers from the throng at Petco Park. Khalil Greene's game-tying grand slam in the ninth, Ramon Hernandez's walk-off homer in the 12th, accompanied by the blaring calls from the giddy San Diego Padres announcers.

The Washington Nationals turned their backs in the dugout, wanting to do anything but relive an unspeakable defeat. They tried instead to turn their attention to the game at hand, because through all the pain of that debacle -- in which the Nationals blew a five-run lead with two outs in the ninth inning -- there was, somehow, another opportunity.

Yet as the shadows grew long on the Pacific Coast, the only opportunity the Nationals could seize was the chance to provide the Padres with more highlight-reel fodder. They frittered away another lead, this one a 1-0 advantage in the eighth. When reliever Joey Eischen charged to field a bunt in the bottom of the ninth, when he threw errantly to first base, allowing the deciding run in San Diego's 2-1 victory to score, the cameras rolled on the Padres, who mobbed the man who laid down the bunt, center fielder Dave Roberts, and then bounced as a group, a massive hug that would make for a nice inspirational video.

Thus, for the second time in less than 24 hours, near silence enveloped the Nationals' clubhouse, broken only by the sound of bags zipping. This six-game road trip, full of promise when the Nationals won the first four, ended with a pair of excruciating losses that sent them back to Washington with the reality that the rest of their season is a numbers game. With 12 games to play, the Nationals trail the Houston Astros in the race for the National League's wild-card playoff berth by 4 1/2 games. The number of opportunities is dwindling.

"It's going to be tough, to be honest," said left fielder Brad Wilkerson, and that is the truth. The Nationals' 8-5 loss on Saturday night, coupled with Sunday's result, in which Washington managed just five hits, made for a disastrous, deflating weekend. The Nationals still trail not only the Astros, but the Philadelphia Phillies and Florida Marlins as well, and if realistic playoff hopes are to live deep into the final week of the season, it will be not only because the Nationals find a way to emotionally withstand all this, but because all three of those teams lose repeatedly.

"You can turn it around if you desire to do so and go out and win some ballgames," Manager Frank Robinson said. "You go out and win 10 of 12, and take your chances. But naturally, we're going to need a lot of help."

They need more help than they might have, because they didn't help themselves over the final 10 innings here. The setting was San Diego, so even after Saturday's meltdown, the inevitable happened Sunday morning. The sun rose. The temperature turned to a perfect 75 degrees. Not a cloud could be found.

Yet the chill of Saturday night's loss hung in the air, and the topic for almost anyone who watched it was how in the world it got to that point, where a five-run, ninth-inning lead could evaporate.

Robinson admitted that how he handled the ninth, in which Washington used four pitchers -- including closer Chad Cordero, who allowed Greene's grand slam -- ate at him. The 70-year-old Hall of Famer has maintained, even through the depths of a second-half slump, that he leaves losses at the ballpark, that he always manages to sleep well regardless of the outcome. Not so Saturday night.

"It's different," Robinson said, "because I felt like I didn't get my job done."

How so?

"In the ninth inning," Robinson said. "I was not able to put the right person out there, the right combination, to get three outs."

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