Nats Cap a Freefall From Grace
Monday, September 26, 2005
Think back, for a moment, to happier times, to the first Sunday in July, when the sun shone on Wrigley Field in Chicago, when the Washington Nationals blew a two-run lead in the ninth, blew another two-run lead in the 11th, yet beat the Chicago Cubs in 12 innings. It was the high-water mark of the season, when this group, so unexpectedly, sat 19 games over .500, in first place in the National League East by 5 1/2 games, on pace to win -- gulp! -- 100 games.
Keep that in mind, then consider the rest of the story. That thud you heard at 4:19 p.m. yesterday, the one emanating from RFK Stadium, was the completion of a precipitous fall. There are still six games remaining in the Nationals' season, but the confluence of events yesterday -- a 6-5 loss to the New York Mets, official elimination from the race for the postseason, their record all the way back at an even .500 and a drop into last place -- would have seemed preposterous. Yet here they were, that laundry list of milestones that sum up a second half gone inexplicably bad.
How to explain it?
"The second half, we collapsed," catcher Gary Bennett said. "Plain and simple."
So it was a glum group that gathered itself in RFK's home clubhouse yesterday evening. The Nats allowed the Mets a three-game sweep that dropped their record to 78-78, the first time they have been at .500 since May 29. New York, too, moved a half-game ahead of Washington in the standings. The Nationals have three games at Florida beginning tonight, then three more against Philadelphia back at RFK over the weekend. At one point, little more than a week ago, it looked very much as if each and every one of those games could be meaningful. But yesterday's loss means the Nationals can no longer catch Houston, which leads the race for the NL's wild-card berth, so there will be no postseason.
Instead, the players must find a way to stop this slide -- seven losses in eight games -- before memories of that first half are meaningless. A generation from now, should baseball historians open up the record book and find standings that say Washington's first baseball team in 34 years finished last, will anyone remember that glorious day in Chicago, or the 10-game winning streak that preceded it, or the 59 days atop the division?
"This team doesn't want or need to finish in last place after the season we've had," left fielder Brad Wilkerson said. "It's going to come up short of what we wanted to do. But I think coming in last place would leave a bad taste in our mouths."
Even yesterday left a bitterness that needed to be spat out. Patterson took the mound having spent the previous week concerned about his parents, brother and sister, who were trying to escape Hurricane Rita as it set course for the Gulf Coast of Texas. The family made it north from Orange, Patterson's home town, to Jasper, where it holed up at a vacation home. When the storm passed through, they headed south to Houston, where they remain at his sister's apartment. Neither Patterson nor his family know whether their houses in Orange survived.
"It was on my mind," Patterson said. "I was trying to do the best job I could considering the situation."
The best he could do was four runs in six innings, including a pair of home runs to Mets catcher Mike Piazza, the first a solo shot in the second, the next a two-run blast in the fourth, just two of the Mets' four homers. They joined the Los Angeles Dodgers as just the second club to do that this year at RFK. It continued a disturbing trend for Nationals pitchers, who no longer can keep the ball in the park. At one point, Washington's staff felt comfortable throwing strikes to almost any opposing hitter at home, where the ball didn't seem to travel. Yet in dropping five games in a six-game homestand, they allowed 10 homers that scored 19 of the opponents' 25 runs.
"I tell you one thing," Manager Frank Robinson said. "I'll be glad to get out of this . . . bandbox."
He said it sarcastically, but the entire chain of events represents the about-face the Nationals pulled in the season's second half. At one point, they were 23-7 in one-run games. After yesterday, they are 7-23 in such contests since. Homers are a significant part of the turn. Before the all-star break, Nationals pitchers allowed 19 homers in 43 games at RFK. Since then, they allowed 43 in 35 home games.
"The times we've made mistakes, they haven't missed them," Bennett said. "That's the only explanation I have for you."
Still, when Nick Johnson hit a two-out, two-run single in the seventh, Washington had a 5-4 lead. But in the eighth, reliever Travis Hughes -- who spent almost the entire year in the minors -- served up a 1-2 fastball to David Wright, who placed it over the left field wall to tie the game. Then, with two outs, Hughes threw a first-pitch fastball to Mets rookie Mike Jacobs, who sent it just below Section 465 in right, the blast that became the game-winner.
"I didn't put them where I wanted to," Hughes said.
A refrain so foreign in the first half, so common thereafter. Whether they finish last or not is still to be determined. But with that first half so distant, yesterday carried a feeling of finality.
"To finish the way that we're finishing up right now, with six games to go, I don't know," Patterson said. "It's kind of . . . "
He paused, taking a deep breath.
"Everything was going so well," he said eventually. "To finish like this is just such a disappointment."