Dodgers 5, Nationals 4

When Jose Vidro turned the corner at first, Frank Robinson looked to the outfield. A chance, maybe, to overcome the four home runs his pitching staff surrendered? Not exactly. "I wasn't thinking good thoughts," Robinson said. In fact, he said, he had taken perhaps two steps toward the clubhouse, because the way things are going for the Washington Nationals, Vidro -- running wild with two outs in the bottom of the ninth -- was sure to be thrown out at second.

"Things like that are what starts us," Vidro protested, and when he deftly dove into the bag, narrowly eluding a tag by Los Angeles Dodgers second baseman Jeff Kent, it looked as if he might be right. Jose Guillen, the Nationals' top RBI man, was due to bat, his team down by one run.

In an earlier month, before the heat set in and the pressure rose, maybe Guillen would have driven in Vidro to tie the game, and the Nationals would have joked afterward about how things seem to break their way. Not now, in the stickiness of August. Guillen's simple one-hopper back to Dodgers closer Yhency Brazoban ended the game, sending the announced crowd of 36,277 filing out of RFK Stadium, muttering about a 5-4 loss that was, in some ways, so typical of this swoon.

If it seems like the Nationals have now lost 19 games in a month, it's because they have. And if it seems like they lost last night's game in 19 different ways, it's because they did. A month ago today, they won their sixth game in a row, beating the Chicago Cubs, to extend their lead in the National League East to 51/2 games. Since then, they have failed to win even two straight, and unless they take the next two from the decidedly mediocre Dodgers, they will have lost eight straight series. Their deficit in the NL East is 51/2 games, as far from first as they have been all year.

"With the talent we have here, we can keep saying this and that," Vidro said. "But if you don't go out and perform, that's the bottom line -- we keep losing."

The skid is seven of their last eight and 19 of 25 since that day in Chicago. But this game was lost long before Vidro made his questionable dash for second, and Guillen -- now hitting .222 with runners in scoring position and two outs -- failed to deliver.

The most obvious shortcomings were how the Dodgers scored all of their runs, on those four homers. On a night when Nationals center fielder Brad Wilkerson hit a two-run triple that would have been out of most parks, when first baseman Nick Johnson hit a deep fly ball with two on in the eighth that looked as if it might have a chance, the Dodgers managed solo shots by Kent, Jason Repko and pinch hitter Hee Seop Choi as well as a two-run homer by catcher Jason Phillips that broke open a 2-2 tie in the seventh.

"Who knows why?" said starter Esteban Loaiza, who yielded three of the blasts.

And who knows how? In 50 previous games at spacious RFK -- which is yielding fewer homers than any other yard -- the Nationals had never given up as many as three home runs. But Loaiza grooved a fastball to Kent in the second, allowed the rookie Repko to turn on a cutter in the fifth, and fell behind Phillips 3-1 before serving up another meaty cutter in the seventh. Three pitches, three lousy locations.

"If you hit it well," catcher Brian Schneider said, "it'll go out."

By the time Choi homered off reliever Hector Carrasco leading off the eighth, the Dodgers had a 5-2 lead, and the outcome seemed decided. Why? The Nationals hadn't scored five runs since July 16, 16 games earlier. Why now, in the midst of such a horrendous slide?

But the crowd, quiet much of the night, finally had something to get worked up about when the Nationals rallied for two runs in the eighth, an inning that ended with runners on first and second when pinch hitter Carlos Baerga grounded sharply to second. And again, in the ninth, when Guillen came to the plate with Vidro on second, there was more false hope.

But to the astute observer, the game had already been lost. Take that Wilkerson drive in the third, the one that ended up being a triple. No big deal. The Nationals led 2-1, and Wilkerson stood on third with just one out. "We've got to score that run," Wilkerson said.

They didn't. Vidro popped softly to short left field, not deep enough to score the run, and Guillen popped to short. Sure, they had the lead. But not by enough.

"It always seems to come back and get us in the end, when we don't take advantage of those opportunities early in the game," Wilkerson said. "And we've been doing that a lot lately."

So pick a moment. If the Nationals had scored that run, maybe the outcome would have been different. If they had more than one hit in their 10 at-bats with runners in scoring position, maybe they would have won. If Loaiza had placed one of those cut fastballs inside rather than over the plate, maybe the homestand would have started properly. If Carrasco had done his job, rather than letting Choi turn on a fastball, maybe there would have been extra innings. "That little word 'if' has been in our vocabulary an awful lot here lately," Robinson said. "Too much."

Nationals pitcher Esteban Loiaza turns away after giving up his third homer, a two-run, tiebreaking shot to Jason Phillips in the seventh inning.Jose Vidro can't handle a throw to second base as Jeff Kent slides in for a double in the seventh inning. Kent scored on Jason Phillips's homer.Vidro, left, narrowly avoids a tag by Kent, putting Vidro on second with the Nats trailing by one in the ninth.