Astros 4, Nationals 1

With every opportunity that was wasted by the Washington Nationals, with every inning that passed without a run, it became more and more apparent that there was only one way that their game with the Houston Astros was going to end yesterday afternoon. Eric Bruntlett, a seldom-used Houston outfielder, hit a three-run home run in the top of the 14th inning to push the Astros to a 4-1 victory and put the finishing touches on a disappointing homestand for the Nationals.

"Something is missing here with this ballclub now," Manager Frank Robinson said. "Something is missing. Whatever it is, I've got to try to find it or figure it out. This is not the same ballclub that played most of the first half of the year. And I don't mean personnel-wise. I mean the way we're going about our job and our results."

The Nationals (55-44) are 3-8 since the all-star break, and they are batting .170 in those 11 games. But somehow they remain tied for first in the division with the Atlanta Braves, who lost, 3-2, to the Arizona Diamondbacks yesterday. The Nationals open a pivotal three-game series in Atlanta tomorrow.

"It doesn't matter who we're playing, the way we're going," Robinson said. "If we go into Atlanta and hit the way we've been going, we don't have a chance."

Yesterday, the Nationals used six pitchers and every position player available. They managed four hits and wasted several offensive opportunities, drawing scattered boos from the crowd of 39,203 at RFK Stadium. They finally lost the game when a utility player with a .167 batting average hit the seventh home run of his career.

"It's been frustrating the last 10, 12 days," hitting coach Tom McCraw said. "What is disgusting is we are letting very good pitching go to waste."

Washington starter John Patterson had his best performance of the season; he scattered six hits over eight innings, struck out a career-high 10 and didn't walk a batter. He gave up one run, but probably should've left the field with a scoreless outing. Left fielder Marlon Byrd misread the angle on a slicing drive from Lance Berkman in the sixth inning, and what could have been a long out turned into a double off the wall. Berkman scored on a long sacrifice fly from Mike Lamb.

Houston rookie starter Wandy Rodriguez was just as tough, giving up just three hits while striking out four in seven innings. At one point, the right-hander retired 13 consecutive Nationals (three by strikeout). Washington's only run came in the fifth inning when catcher Gary Bennett singled to drive in Byrd.

The Nationals struck out seven times in the five extra innings. Both Robinson and McCraw seemed especially frustrated with players who appeared to be looking for home runs when solid contact -- either a fly ball or base hit -- would have been enough.

"We should win by simple execution," McCraw said. "Not home runs. Just base hits, contact. Read the situation. When I walk to home plate and I got a man on third base, I'm not thinking home run. I'm just thinking good solid contact. I shouldn't be jumping or check-swinging, I'm looking for a ball I need to hit."

The Nationals had a runner on third with one out in the first inning, but were unable to drive him in. In the eighth, Washington put runners at second and third with one out and again failed to score. Pinch hitter Ryan Church -- who is batting .318 -- tried to check his swing on the second pitch he saw, but he ended up sending a meek grounder back to the pitcher for the second out. Wilkerson struck out to end the inning.

"I messed up," said Church. "I was in the perfect situation to end the game in the bottom of the eighth."

Preston Wilson led off the 12th with a single and moved to second on a groundout by Carlos Baerga. But the next two hitters -- Byrd and Jamey Carroll -- struck out against reliever Russ Springer. Houston closer Brad Lidge retired the three batters he faced in the 14th for his 23rd save.

"Sometimes when things aren't going well, you have a tendency to press or try too hard or do things you're not capable of, and maybe that's creeping in a little bit," Bennett said. "Attitude-wise, nobody is down. Plain and simple we're just not getting hits."

Houston's Adam Everett, left, and Jose Vizcaino give a round of applause for Eric Bruntlett's homer in the 14th inning as Brian Schneider watches.Washington's Jose Guillen is hit by a pitch in the right wrist and has to leave the game in the ninth inning.