Nats Still Fighting to the End

By Thomas Boswell
Friday, June 12, 2009

When Cindy Acta got up yesterday morning, she told her husband Manny she had fallen asleep the previous night watching the Nats game on television when rain arrived in the bottom of the ninth inning with the Reds ahead, 2-0. "So what happened?" she asked.

"The good news," the Nats' manager told her was that, after a 2-hour 10-minute rain delay, "we came back to tie the game against Francisco Cordero, the first time he's blown a save in his last 29 chances."

Acta, whose job may hang by a thread but whose dignity seems attached with a rope, was proud his team had kept fighting at midnight with less than 100 fans still in the park.

"The bad news is that we lost in the 12th inning," he said of the near-1 a.m. defeat.

She groaned. Heart-breaking. Again. Always the same story, but with a different twist each time. If the bullpen isn't aflame, then a team-hitting slump arrives. Errors everywhere. Men picked off base. Can't bunt. Four rookies in the rotation, all promising but all still kids who make the one crucial mistake to lose. The plagues come in sequence.

"So, how are you?" she asked.

Like all Nats, not good, that's for sure. But how bad? Utterly terrible? Or is this a team that is still capable of preserving a shred of residual dignity over its last 104 games?

After that loss near 1 a.m., which extended their slump since May 9 to a mind-numbing 5-24, the Nats faced a kind of litmus test -- not of ability but of will -- yesterday afternoon. Little sleep. Muggy afternoon. No motivation except core pride in being a big leaguer, even on the worst club. Crowd of 19,790 just watchin' a ballgame, expecting little, not booing or cheering. Even fans can mail it in. Would the Nats, too?

Inning after inning, the Nationals tried too much, not too little, squandering seven rallies in a row, leaving the Reds ahead 2-1 in the bottom of the eighth. The pressure of a monumental slump is every bit as corrosive -- at least to a team that still cares -- as the pressure of a pennant race is to a quality team.

"After last night, it's hot and miserable today. They didn't want to be out there," said Adam Dunn. "It's gotten so bad for us that we all want to get the big timely hit and we put a lot of added pressure on ourselves. It's just been a very, very, very, very, very frustrating [homestand]. I've missed so many pitches to hit with men on base."

Finally, however, on the Nats' eighth-inning rally, the Reds cracked and handed them the game. Bench players Willie Harris, Anderson Hernández and Alberto González had singles to load the bases. But on a weak bases-loaded grounder to shortstop by Ryan Zimmerman, Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips threw away the double-play pivot, two runs scored and the Nats' bullpen, much improved the last 17 games, held the 3-2 lead.

Even though they are now on pace for 117 losses, just three less than the modern-day record of the '62 Mets, the Nats are probably not going to be historically atrocious. We're catching them right at the nadir of one of the worst streaks any team will ever have. Of course, that skein may last a while longer. "I don't believe in 'the stars are aligned against you.' But now we play the American League East for 15 games," said one Nat.

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