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Losses Leave Nats Doubled Over
Playoff Hopes on the Brink After Second Straight Blown Lead: Padres 2, Nationals 1

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."

Yet given a night to stew about it, Robinson wouldn't say what he would have done differently in the loss. He said he managed the game, which the Nationals led 5-0, as a tight affair -- pulling pitchers and using matchups -- because it was the ninth inning.

"That five-run lead could be down to one or two in a hurry," Robinson said. "That's all. You're in the ninth inning, not the fifth or sixth inning. You need three outs to close the game out. That's the difference there. You're not in the middle of the ballgame."

So on Sunday, the Nationals tried to put it all aside, even with the scoreboard, in the bottom of the second, blaring those reminders. "In the dugout, there were good spirits," Wilkerson said.

Right-hander Esteban Loaiza did everything he could do, even on three days' rest, shutting out the Padres over seven innings. Twice, he received help in the field, first when Wilkerson tracked down a deep shot to the gap off the bat of Brian Giles in the third, stranding a runner at second. Then, in the seventh, with the Nationals nursing a 1-0 lead and runners on second and third, Roberts hit a grounder to first baseman Nick Johnson, who tagged the bag, then fired to shortstop Cristian Guzman, who caught San Diego's Miguel Olivo napping off second, a double play that had Loaiza pumping his fist and skipping across the infield.

In three starts on short rest this year, Loaiza has a 1.69 ERA. And the Nationals' starters this weekend -- John Patterson, Hector Carrasco and Loaiza -- pitched against the Padres as if they relished the heat of a pennant race, allowing just one run in 22 splendid innings.

The problem: Loaiza couldn't help the offense against San Diego starter Pedro Astacio, who yielded three hits and one run over seven innings.

"What can I say?" Loaiza said. "I wish I was a hitter, too."

So it was, again, left to the bullpen, one that is the primary reason the Nationals have managed to stay in contention until two weeks remain. Gary Majewski gave up a leadoff single in the eighth, walked Giles with one out, then hit Joe Randa to load the bases. That allowed Greene to tie the game with a sacrifice fly.

"I hate that it had to happen today," Majewski said.

Eischen got the final out of the eighth, but Olivo singled off Guzman's glove to start the ninth. Then, with two strikes on Robert Fick -- who missed two bunt attempts -- Eischen threw a pitch that, Fick said, "really bailed me out." It hit Fick in the back.

"I wasn't looking to hit him in the back," Eischen said. "It was supposed to be over the [freaking] plate."

So finally, Roberts laid down the bunt, trying only to move the runners to second and third. Instead, Eischen threw to second baseman Deivi Cruz, who was covering first. The throw was, as Eischen said, "a little wide." It hit Roberts in the ribs, and trickled away. Olivo scampered home, and the Padres' celebration began.

"It's tough to lose these two, because you could've been sitting right there," General Manager Jim Bowden said. "It just means you got to get hot again."

Not hot. Scalding. There is no more time, no other alternative.

"It's not over until it's over, until they put an 'X' by our name, and say that there's no chance that we can make it," Majewski said. "Any team can make it in the wild card right now."

After the preceding 24 hours, it will be easier for some than for others.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company