Padres 3, Nationals 2

Frank Robinson sat in a black, cushioned office chair, rolled out from behind the desk in his office to the middle of the clubhouse floor, and started off a meeting in which he didn't know what might happen. The struggles of Robinson's team over the past month built to a climax Friday night, when several Washington Nationals tossed various items around the dugout, and Robinson, the team's manager, wanted to, as he said, "clear the air."

So at 3:58 p.m. yesterday, the clubhouse door closed. It didn't open for 1 hour 44 minutes.

"I can't remember the last time I played this card," Robinson said. "This was not your typical meeting."

Nor are these typical times for the Nationals. After the group therapy session, the struggling unit went out and played a game that looked like so many it had played before, a 3-2 loss to the San Diego Padres in which they were all but shut down by a pitcher who had been discarded and was struggling, right-hander Pedro Astacio.

But even as the announced crowd of 38,076 filed out of RFK Stadium, wondering how the Nationals' dormant offense managed only five hits against Astacio and three relievers, the main event of the day was the meeting, which nearly everyone involved described as "positive" or "good," but which was a clear indication that the team that had provided the happiest story in baseball during the first half of the season is now searching for answers, wondering about its chemistry.

"Some things that came up [were] tough," Robinson said. "It's like tough love. It got out there, and it was discussed, and there was some discussion on the issues, and we got through it. That's why I think it was a good meeting, because there were a lot of things said by a lot of people on different subjects."

The players, who spoke during a 50-31 first half of their superior chemistry, used the opportunity to vent at each other, though several sources said no one player was the target.

"Stuff was said that needed to be said," outfielder Ryan Church said. "Everybody here was a man about it. You have to be a man about it. It comes down to everybody pulling together."

The signs of instability, however, have been there for some time, beginning on July 5 against the New York Mets, when right fielder Jose Guillen had a midgame confrontation in the dugout with pitcher Esteban Loaiza and catcher Brian Schneider after Guillen was hit by a pitch and felt Loaiza didn't retaliate. Then, on July 20, ace Livan Hernandez threatened to have season-ending surgery on his right knee and blasted the media in a profanity-laced tirade the following day, but eventually settled down.

Then, the events of Friday night provided plenty of topics for discussion.

Hernandez left that 6-5 loss to the Padres, tossing his glove, hat and warmup jacket into the crowd following his exit. He then knocked over at least one water cooler and threw some other items in the dugout. Later, reliever Joey Eischen broke a bat after striking out, and closer Chad Cordero also knocked things around in the dugout.

"Some of that stuff isn't necessary," one player said.

So the idea was, several players said, to get refocused on the approach the Nationals had in the first half, when they surprisingly built a 51/2-game lead in the National League East.

"We have a great first half," third baseman Vinny Castilla said. "We know it's going to be a tough second half. It's no secret. Everybody knows that. Everybody's going to come after us. We're not playing the way we played the first half. That's it. We have to regroup."

They didn't do it last night against Astacio, who was cut loose by Texas and, in 17 appearances this year, was 2-10 with a 6.06 ERA. Washington starter Ryan Drese was effective enough, and Castilla's homer in the fourth -- his first since June 30 -- gave Washington a 2-1 lead.

Drese, though, gave that back in the sixth. Then, in the seventh, the moment when the game turned. Drese allowed a leadoff double to pinch hitter Eric Young. Robinson started to go get Drese and replace him with lefty Joey Eischen to face the left-handed hitting Dave Roberts, but when it looked as if Roberts might bunt, he left Drese in. Roberts failed on two sacrifice attempts, and with the count 2-2 -- making it unlikely Roberts would bunt -- Robinson replaced Drese with Eischen.

"I was very surprised," said Drese, who sat in the dugout shaking his head. "Never happened before."

Eischen struck out Roberts, but then faced right-handed hitting Joe Randa. Robinson said he wanted Eischen to pitch carefully to Randa to get to the two left-handed hitters that followed.

"You expect your veteran pitchers to be able to be a little smarter than that," Robinson said.

Eischen, though, left an inside fastball up in the zone. Randa ripped it for an RBI double that provided the winning run.

"I made a bad pitch," Eischen said. "It ended up being the deciding pitch."

This, in turn, could be the decisive period for the Nationals. The loss dropped them 51/2 games behind the Atlanta Braves in the NL East, and they failed to pull even with the Houston Astros in the wild-card race. But there are indications that if things remain this way, General Manager Jim Bowden is willing to go to the minor leagues for reinforcements.

"We've got the same team, the same ballclub here that won how many games in the first half?" second baseman Jose Vidro said. "I haven't lost confidence in my teammates. That's the bottom line. I think we have enough on this ballclub, in this clubhouse here, to win. We're just going through a really bad time right now."

"This was not your typical meeting," said Manager Frank Robinson, right, of the 1-hour 44-minute pregame venting.First baseman Nick Johnson can't prevent an infield single by the Padres' Brian Giles in the 7th inning before 38,076 at RFK. It was the Nationals' 13th straight loss in a game decided by one run.The Nationals gather for a pregame huddle before going out and losing for the eighth time in their last nine games.