Braves 5, Nationals 4

By Thursday morning, the previous night's fire had gone out of Frank Robinson and he leaned backward in his office, grasping for something elusive, an explanation for a wonderful season suddenly going wrong.

"It looks like we're a team that's coming out to play just to play," the Washington Nationals manager said. "It's not playing with the energy that says 'we're going to win.' Now we seem resolved to the fact that we're going to lose this game."

And for the next half hour -- before Washington took the field Thursday for yet another loss, 5-4, completing a three-game sweep by the Atlanta Braves -- Robinson pondered every possibility. Were his players worn out from a first half littered with taxing one-run wins? Could they not handle the attention that had come with leading the National League East? Were they suddenly too uptight?

He kept coming back to the theme he had pounded home in a team meeting the night before: They had to play hard again.

Then they went out Thursday and did just that.

So hard that they almost came back after starter Ryan Drese put them behind 4-0 in the first four innings. So hard that Jose Guillen, desperate to keep a sixth-inning rally alive and break up a double play, flew feet first into Braves third baseman Chipper Jones, knocking Jones to the ground and igniting a war of threats tossed between clubhouses after Jones realized that Guillen's spikes had cut him high on the right leg.

"There are correct ways to break up a double play," Jones said. "Almost castrating somebody is not the way to do it."

Then he glowered.

"I'll remember that the next time I go into second base against them," he said.

To which an agitated Guillen replied:

"Next time I come even harder then."

At least if they're going to go down, they'll go down fighting. Or so it seemed to Robinson, who after the game looked strangely relieved, saying "The effort was there today, I told them that after the game. If we could come up with that every time then we'll be okay."

But frustration still lingered in a clubhouse that was once so happy. Players sulked silently, dressed quickly, then hurried out the door for the flight to Miami and a series with the Florida Marlins.

Left behind were the same missed opportunities of recent days. A Drese double where he was tagged out for sliding past second base. A Brad Wilkerson fly out with the bases loaded in the fifth. Three straight outs with two men on in the sixth. Ryan Church's strikeout in the eighth with the tying run on third.

In the aftermath of the game the Nationals almost looked confused as to how they should feel. Robinson was both irked and encouraged. Some players looked shell-shocked. Guillen just looked angry.

"There's no excuse for us losing three games here," he said. "It's not acceptable. We're letting our fans, [General Manager] Jim Bowden, Frank, [President] Tony Tavares down. We're letting all the people of Washington down."

He looked around the room.

"Look at the fire we had in the first half," he continued. "Everybody was fired up in the dugout and in the clubhouse. You don't see that in here. I don't know if these guys are tired or what. I'm not that way. I really care. I really care about winning. I sacrifice my body every day.

"Look at all the fun we were having. Everybody was jumping around, taking their shirts off. I think maybe everybody was satisfied with the first half. It's going to be a big disappointment for the fans and the coaching staff and the front office if we keep playing like this."

Someone asked if he thought the Braves were just too powerful a team for the Nationals. His eyes flashed.

"The guys who did the damage [today] it wasn't Andruw [Jones] or Chipper," he said. "It was some rookie guy -- I don't even know his name."

The rookie guy was Jeff Francoeur, who was playing his 12th game as a Brave. He hit his fourth and fifth career home runs, two solo shots that were ultimately the difference in this game. But nearly every Atlanta regular had something to do with the sweep that has dropped the Nationals to three games back in the National League East. They have lost 16 of their last 21.

Suddenly the year is slipping away and they don't seem to know what to do about it.

From left, Washington players Vinny Castilla, Carlos Baerga, Gary Majewski and Brian Schneider look on glumly moments before the Nationals fell three games off the pace in the NL East.Washington catcher Brian Schneider mishandles a throw, allowing Atlanta's Rafael Furcal to score the first run of the game on a fielder's choice by Chipper Jones in the third inning.Braves third baseman Chipper Jones gets a forceout despite being upended and spiked high on the right leg by the Nationals' Jose Guillen in the sixth inning.