Astros 14, Nationals 1

Reprinted from yesterday's late editions

It took the Astros four at-bats Friday night to register the decisive blow against the Nationals, because that's how quickly a lead becomes insurmountable when Roger Clemens is pitching.

The game's crucial exchange happened before half the fans at RFK Stadium even reached their seats: a two-out walk to Lance Berkman, then a first-pitch, two-run homer by Morgan Ensberg that ricocheted off the scoreboard in left-center field. That's all it took. The Astros handed over a two-run lead to Clemens, a starter who has allowed more than two runs only twice all year. In a 14-1 Astros win, the Nationals never so much as threatened to come back. Clemens allowed three hits and struck out 10 in six shutout innings and the slumping Washington offense didn't have a runner reach third base until the seventh inning.

The Astros, meanwhile, made RFK Stadium look like a hitter's paradise. Their 14 runs -- on 19 hits -- were the most scored against the Nationals all season, and with four runs each in the seventh and eighth innings, Houston sent 38,019 fans to the stadium exits in a smattering of boos.

At the end of the game, the Nationals -- losers of 12 of their last 16 games -- fell out of first place in the National League East for the first time since June 4. The Atlanta Braves held a half-game lead, but then fell back into a tie with Washington after losing to Arizona late Friday night.

"We got our [butt] kicked. That's it," right fielder Jose Guillen said. "Clemens, he was on his game today. You just have to tip your hat and give the guy a lot of credit. It's that simple."

The Astros' ace has been best on the road this season, entering Friday night's game with a 0.34 earned run average as a visitor. As has become his habit, he flew in to Washington only for yesterday's game. His one-year, $18 million contract allows him to travel exclusively to the games he pitches. He started Sunday in St. Louis, then skipped a four-game series in Pittsburgh to watch his son, Koby, make his minor league debut in Greenville, Tenn.

Friday night, Clemens provided justification for his rock-star lifestyle. Interrupting his offspeed pitches with a fastball that sizzled at 95 mph, Clemens allowed only one hard-hit ball, Guillen's double in the sixth inning.

Of Clemens's 10 strikeouts, four of them ended with a Nationals batter standing, resigned, with the bat still on his shoulder. Clemens struck out three batters in a row starting at the end of the first inning and four consecutively starting in the fourth. He bumped his season strikeout total to 123, and the 42-year-old exited the game with plenty of gas left.

"My shutouts are over probably in the seventh inning," Clemens said. "We were going back and forth about the seventh inning, and they said that's enough, even though I was pitching so well."

Against the Nationals, it was sometimes difficult to differentiate between Clemens's dominance and Washington's ineptitude. For the 10th time in 11 games, the Nationals failed to score more than four runs. They spent yesterday afternoon bemoaning the size of RFK Stadium, and they're beginning to feel uncomfortable in the park where they won 29 of 39 games through the end of June.

"When you don't score, you're going to lose," Manager Frank Robinson said. "Nobody in the lineup is coming through with a big hit for us right now to get things started. We're not getting that hit. You don't like to be embarrassed like that, especially not at home."

It was a thorough humiliation that started in the first inning and grew progressively worse. The Astros battered Nationals starter Ryan Drese for six runs and nine hits in 61/3 innings. They rocked his reliever, Sun Woo Kim, for eight runs and 10 hits in 12/3 innings. They pounded five doubles and two home runs. Two Astros, Willy Tavares and Jason Lane, collected four hits each.

What resulted was the worst loss in Nationals' history, at least in terms of margin of defeat. It also felt like one of the worst, since it punctuated the Nationals' slump and made for the seventh loss in the last nine games at home.

"We're waiting for things to happen to us, and we're not being disciplined," Robinson said. "I hope you don't continue to tumble like we have. I hope this is as bad as it can get."

Roger Clemens, 42, gives up just three hits and strikes out 10 while improving to 8-4. The Astros, who had two four-run innings, totaled 19 hits.Nationals Manager Frank Robinson cannot like much of what he sees: His team fell behind 2-0 in the first inning and never threatened.