Astros 6, Nationals 3

Ryan Drese snared the sharply hit ball on one hop, turned toward second, and stared down Morgan Ensberg, the Houston Astros' third baseman, who was caught dancing much too far off the bag. Drese ran toward him, and the next few seconds, it seemed, would merely determine how Ensberg would be retired. Drese might have tagged him out himself, but he flipped to second baseman Jose Vidro. Vidro couldn't run Ensberg down from behind, but no matter. He just tossed the ball lightly to third baseman Vinny Castilla.

And Castilla dropped it. "A real big play," Drese said later, and there was no doubt at the time.

Anyone looking to sum up this miserable run for the Washington Nationals -- a time in which the fundamentals have become foreign -- might want to load the tape of that botched rundown, from the bottom of the sixth, and watch it time and again. It essentially took away any chance the Nationals had of staying close to the Astros in a 6-3 loss Thursday night, because it was followed in short order by a bases-loaded double from Houston catcher Brad Ausmus, and because Astros starter Andy Pettitte overwhelmed the Nationals with eight innings in which he allowed just four hits.

It was, unofficially, the night when the Nationals looked most like a team that has little hope of staying in a playoff chase. Neither Castilla, with a balky knee, nor Vidro, with a bad quadriceps muscle, can run anymore. By the time Preston Wilson and Jose Guillen hit homers in the seventh and ninth innings, respectively, the Nationals had fallen behind 6-0. No one seems capable of delivering a meaningful hit at an important moment. At some point, seemingly long ago now, the Nationals embodied that old cliche about the whole being more than the sum of its parts. Now, the Nationals look to be exactly in line with the sum of their parts, and that is a team not built to contend.

"I guess this is a low point," Manager Frank Robinson said. "It's just a matter of these low points, they've been here. It's just been going, going, going, going. It doesn't seem like we're capable of stopping it or turning it around."

The 35,036 on hand at Minute Maid Park likely left wondering how the Nationals ever won 50 games in half a season, because they have only won nine in the 33 since. The two losses in three games here have left the Nationals losers in five of their last six, flirting with the fringes of the playoff races. They remained 61/2 games behind of the Atlanta Braves in the National League East, and have fallen a season-high three games back of the Astros in the race for the wild-card berth.

"Who cares about what happened in the first half?" Vidro said. "Right now, that's all we're thinking. This team is sinking pretty fast. That's the bottom line."

The bottom line is that the Nationals' offense -- "Let's stop using that word," Robinson said -- had little chance against Pettitte. The former New York Yankee went 5-0 with a 0.95 ERA in July, and was a big reason the Astros fought back from a horrific start and eventually overtook the Nationals in the wild-card race.

So in order for the Nationals to have something of a chance, Drese had to pitch better than he has recently. He didn't, failing to make it out of the sixth for the fifth time in 10 starts with the Nationals, allowing six runs, five of them earned, on nine hits in 51/3 innings.

"Number one, he can't consistently throw the ball where he wants to throw it," Robinson said of Drese, and he used Ausmus's at-bat as an example. Drese conceded that he missed with that pitch, leaving it too high over the outside part of the plate. "You don't know what you're going to get from one hitter to the next, from one pitch to the next," Robinson said.

But the tone was set in the first, when Vidro hit a one-out double off Pettitte, a threat that was followed by Brad Wilkerson's 115th strikeout of the year and a grounder to third from Guillen, back in the lineup after resting his injured left shoulder for four games. The result shouldn't have been surprising, because if one thing has defined this free fall it is the inability to deliver base hits with men in scoring position.

In fact, since July 4 -- when the slump officially began in a loss to the New York Mets -- the Nationals are hitting .198 with runners in scoring position, and slugging .292, prior to Thursday. There is no telling how many games they would have won if they had just matched their paltry totals to date, an average of .253, a slugging percentage of .386, both the worst in baseball.

It led Robinson to make some sweeping statements afterward. Pitching, he said, is "the only hope I see. I don't see any hope offensively."

And, in the field, things are getting worse as well. Drese said he would have done nothing differently on the rundown play, which came with the score 3-0. But Robinson said Drese should have forced Ensberg back to second. Castilla, for his part, said he just missed the ball, his seventh error of the year -- one more than he had all last season.

All they have left, it seems, is the defiance in their voices.

"We still have a chance," Vidro said. "I'm never going to quit. This is a game you play every day, and you got to come back the next day and try to do it. We're only three games out, and we still got a month and a half to go. If you quit now, you don't love this game."

Astros' Andy Pettitte goes 8 innings, improves to 10-8. Counterpart Ryan Drese on the other hand, "can't consistently throw the ball where he wants to throw it."