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On the Road, Nats Head the Wrong Way

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 29, 2007; 1:46 AM

LOS ANGELES, Aug. 28 -- The time for kudos and plaudits has passed, and what's left are the final 29 games of the season. Beginning May 11, the Washington Nationals -- for whom so much doom was forecast before the season -- began a stretch of more than three months in which they shrugged off injuries and played .500 baseball.

That, now, is over. A 4-3 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Tuesday night was their fifth in a row, and they now have their longest skid since they dropped five straight to close out June. This one featured another defensive gaffe from shortstop Felipe Lopez, whose error in the seventh led to the tiebreaking sacrifice fly from the Dodgers' Andre Ethier.

Thus, the Nationals found a particularly painful way to lose. Their record since that red-letter day of May 11, from which all their positive streaks have been measured: 49-50. Now, it is up to Manager Manny Acta, whose team closes out a 10-game road trip Wednesday afternoon, to prevent the Nationals from drifting into a malaise that could undo much of the good work already done.

"You have to remind them it's not over," Acta said. "This month, it could become a long month, and I don't want to go home thinking that, 'Yeah, we just won more than 40, like everybody thought.' I want to have a little more satisfying ending. It's not going to be easy. We never said it was going to be easy."

With upcoming series against all of the contenders for the National League East title -- two series each against Atlanta, Philadelphia and the New York Mets -- Washington now must play well against winning teams to finish respectably. After the Nationals began this trip by taking three of four in Houston, they had a better record than five other NL teams. Now, they are tied with Florida for the worst record in the league.

"You look at September," veteran reliever Ray King said. "You're going to play a lot of teams that are [playing] meaningful games. You're going to play at Shea Stadium. It's going to be packed. I think it would only help a younger team to where they play in that atmosphere to where you can walk out of that game that night feeling like you just spoiled someone else's season."

Rather than spoiling their own. The Nationals entered the night with some mix of curiosity and hope, because right-hander Jason Bergmann was back on the mound. Bergmann hadn't pitched in the majors since July 24, when he strained his left hamstring trying to score from second base. After he started the season with a very strong stretch (2.76 ERA), went on the disabled list with a balky elbow, then pitched poorly when he returned from that injury (7.96 ERA), there was considerable question about which version would show up at Dodger Stadium.

The results were mixed. He gave up three runs in six innings, including a homer to Jeff Kent and a two-run single to the eighth-place hitter, Shea Hillenbrand, that followed an infield single that Lopez might have handled.

"It was a battle the whole time," Bergmann said. "I really didn't have very good command of my off-speed stuff."

Thus, the Nationals entered the late innings trailing 3-2. In the seventh, their best pinch hitter -- veteran Tony Batista, now 13 for 39 (.333) in such situations -- came to the plate. He hadn't hit a home run since May 21 of last season when he was with Minnesota.

Still, he stepped into Chad Billingsley's 1-1 pitch and drove it to right-center. Though Batista began a sprint around the bases, the ball settled over the fence, and his first homer of the year tied the game 3-3.

That momentum, though, quickly evaporated. With one out and two on in the bottom of the seventh, reliever Chris Schroder -- getting a test in an important situation -- allowed a double to pinch hitter Mark Sweeney, then walked Rafael Furcal. Acta brought in the lefty King to face Juan Pierre, whom he had retired in 14 of their 15 meetings.

"I'm just trying to get a groundball," King said. "Trying to get a forceout anywhere."

He got one, back up the middle. Lopez ranged behind second base, and the ball came up, hitting the heel of his glove. It bounced away.

"He just didn't make the play," Acta said.

Everyone was safe on what was ruled an error, loading the bases. Lopez, who made a key misplay in Monday's 5-4 loss, declined to answer questions afterward.

"I wish I could go back and put some water in front of home plate and make that ball bounce a little softer," King said. "It's a tough situation. There's nothing you can do about it. I made the pitch where I wanted. I got the groundball. Unfortunately, it didn't hop our way."

Ethier followed by lifting a two-strike pitch to center, the fly ball that scored the go-ahead run. With that, the Nationals were tied for last in the NL East again, with no idea what lies ahead.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company