Marlins 4, Nationals 3

Reprinted from yesterday's late editions

-- All day, the failings of Thursday afternoon tormented Ryan Church. The Nationals were at a tropical resort on Miami Beach on Friday, but their rookie outfielder's mind stayed in Thursday's eighth inning in Atlanta, with a fastball down the middle of the plate that he fouled back instead of smashing into the bleachers.

Three pitches later he struck out, effectively ending Washington's hopes that day and leaving Church alone with his lament.

"I just felt I let everybody down," he said Friday night in the hours before the Nationals lost yet another game, this time 4-3 to the Marlins. "I felt I let the team down. I felt I let [Manager] Frank [Robinson] down."

Then he looked at the floor and shook his head.

So here he was a few hours later. This time in the seventh inning in a game the Nationals had again scrapped and clawed to get themselves back into, he was called to the plate to pinch-hit with two men on and two out and Washington down a run. And once again there was a fastball, this time from a Florida reliever named Jim Mecir, right across the middle of the plate at about 85 mph -- the kind of pitch Church loves to crush.

Only he watched for strike two.

Two pitches later he had struck out once more. And there was his long walk back to the dugout. Once again it was the last real chance the Nationals would have to win a game.

"Same old thing, it feels old," he said later, once again staring at the floor.

Such is the way it has been in this collapse. The same old thing.

"All it takes is one hit there, and the game changes," Church said.

There were many reasons the Nationals lost their fifth game in a row and only one had to do with Church. They needed their starting pitcher Tony Armas Jr. to be something like the pitcher he was last week when he pitched a one-hitter against the Colorado Rockies. Instead, he gave up three runs in the first inning and failed to bunt a runner to second, contributing to the death of a second-inning rally.

There was also the ground ball that shortstop Cristian Guzman missed that might have kept Armas from his first-inning troubles.

But ultimately the storyline was frighteningly familiar.

"We 'almost' again, but we didn't get that one hit we need," Robinson said.

Almost in the seventh when the Nationals scored twice, piecing together four singles and knocking out the Marlins pitcher Josh Beckett, who has tormented them in the past. But the inning died a run short when Carlos Baerga grounded weekly to first base and Church struck out.

"We need someone to just step up and have a big game," Robinson said.

Use any statistics you want to assess the collapse. Washington has now lost 11 of its last 12, 12 of 15 since the All-Star Game and is winless in its last 10 one-run games. The team that started this road trip in first place in the National League East is now in third place, four games out and falling fast toward the cellar.

The Nationals seem speechless, unsure what they need to do to stop the slide. Before the game, General Manager Jim Bowden shut the clubhouse doors and told the players that he would probably not be making any big deals before Sunday's trading deadline. He seemed to try to use this news as a rallying point, a way of igniting a team that has suddenly grown lethargic.

He told them they needed to play with enthusiasm and have fun the way they had in the year's first three months. He wondered why they didn't hang around the clubhouse the way they did just a month before, laughing and joking and talking baseball until the game was long over and nobody wanted to leave.

"We've got to get our confidence back," Church said. "Screw the other team. That's the way we were in the first half. We didn't worry about who we were playing. 'Screw the other team,' that's how it was. We got to believe in one another."

Only now that belief is starting to fade.

Just like the dream that was the first three months after baseball returned to Washington.

Nationals second baseman Jose Vidro forces out the Marlins' Juan Pierre in the first inning on a fielder's choice.