Rockies 5, Nationals 4

The first-place club played like a sorry, bottom-of-the-barrel outfit last night, one that had its manager's stare honed, his stride purposeful, his wrath preceding him. Over the course of a 162-game season, baseball teams invariably come across sloppy, uninspired efforts. But last night, the Washington Nationals lost a 5-4 decision to the lowly Colorado Rockies that officially made this the worst slump of what had previously been an enjoyable year.

"That is the worst game we've played all year long," Manager Frank Robinson said. "It's unacceptable, and it will not be accepted here."

The Nationals built their lead in the National League East -- one that could evaporate at any moment -- by pitching well and fielding flawlessly. Last night, their starting pitcher, Tony Armas Jr., threw two pitches in the top of the third inning and left because of dizziness and dehydration. Worse, though, their defense simply collapsed, a three-error performance that culminated in third baseman Vinny Castilla's inability to pick up a grounder in the ninth inning of a tie game. Make the play, the inning is over, and the Nationals have a chance to win in the bottom of the ninth. Instead, Eddie Garabito easily scored the winning run from second base.

"I just missed the ball," Castilla said.

Only once this year -- May 13 against the Chicago Cubs -- had the Nationals committed three errors in a game. The follies last night also included a fly ball to center fielder Preston Wilson, acquired from the Rockies in a trade last week. Wilson went back too slowly, sped up, slipped, watched the ball hit his glove and then fall to the ground. It was ruled a triple, and led to another run that shouldn't have scored.

All this is the kind of play indicative of a team that has lost nine of its last 12. Previously, the focus of the slump was the offense. But Robinson -- who watched his club make five errors over two days in losses to Milwaukee and Colorado -- said the precursors to this loss were there over the past two weeks.

"It's just it was more of the sloppy play than it has been," he said. "But we've been making little sloppy plays that cost us runs in ballgames for quite some time now. It just came to a head tonight."

Perhaps Armas's departure should have been an omen. The temperature was a muggy 87 degrees at the time of the first pitch, and after tossing his warmups in the top of the third, he didn't look right. He threw two straight balls to the opposing pitcher, Byung Hyun Kim, and catcher Brian Schneider reported to the mound. He was joined in short order by Robinson and trainer Tim Abraham.

"He said he couldn't catch his breath and he was dizzy," Robinson said of Armas, who had departed RFK by game's end.

Even with that aborted outing, there were plenty of opportunities to take advantage of the Rockies, who had lost four straight, who have baseball's worst record on the road and who committed three errors of their own. Washington tied the game at 4 in the seventh, getting one run on Ryan Church's bases-loaded sacrifice fly, then scoring the other when the ensuing throw to third from center fielder Cory Sullivan skipped past third baseman Garrett Atkins, allowing Jose Guillen to scoot home.

The crowd of 30,165 could reasonably assume, at that point, that the Nationals would somehow pull this thing out, especially because relievers Joey Eischen, Hector Carrasco, Luis Ayala and Chad Cordero all pitched effectively. But there were more gaffes to come.

In the eighth, Schneider -- who tied a career high with four hits -- led off with a single. Up walked shortstop Cristian Guzman, who hasn't had a hit since the all-star break. The mission was clear: Bunt Schneider to second, and give pinch hitter Wil Cordero and leadoff man Brad Wilkerson each a crack to drive him home with the lead run.

"He threw me good pitches," Guzman said of Rockies reliever Jose Acevedo.

Guzman fouled off three of those pitches, a strikeout at a crucial moment that dropped his average to .190.

"I wish my vocabulary was better to describe that situation," Robinson said. "But it's not, so I'll leave it as it is."

Earlier in the day, Guzman received something of a vote of confidence from Robinson, who kept him in the lineup despite his monumental offensive struggles. But his failed bunt attempt could have been the low point on the Nationals' lowest night.

Yet, inexplicably, it got worse. First, Chad Cordero -- the closer pitching in a tie game -- allowed a leadoff single to Garabito. The Rockies bunted him to second, but Cordero then struck out Sullivan. Cordero got Aaron Miles to hit what looked like would be an inning-ending grounder toward the normally slick Castilla, who had already made one error on the night.

"When something goes bad," Castilla said, "it's bad."

That booted ball aside, the Nationals had one last chance to save face. But Jose Vidro was ejected for arguing a called third strike to lead off the bottom of the ninth, and described himself as too upset to talk afterward. Guillen, though, reached on an error, and Wilson walked. With the tying run in scoring position, Robinson sent up Jamey Carroll to pinch-hit for Church against lefty closer Brian Fuentes.

Carroll, a speedy utility player who normally takes pitches, swung at Fuentes's first offering, a fastball. It bounced directly to the shortstop, and the Rockies had little trouble completing a game-ending double play.

It all left Robinson mystified. A lack of concentration? Nervousness? He couldn't figure it out -- or stand for it.

"We just seem like we're in a fog," he said. "We're not thinking."

Jose Vidro shows his frustration after a called third strike ended his at-bat leading off the bottom of the ninth inning. Vidro was ejected for arguing the call.In the ninth, Brian Schneider waits for the ball as Eddy Garabito scores the go-ahead run on Vinny Castilla's second error.