An article in the Aug. 19 Sports section incorrectly stated that the Major League Baseball team with the fourth-best record in each league secures the wild-card spot in the playoffs. The wild-card berths are awarded to the teams in each league with the best record after the three division titles have been clinched. A wild-card team may have a better record than one or two of the three division winners. (Published 8/22/2005)
The Washington Nationals are tortoise-slow on the base paths and impatient and meek-hitting at the plate. They have half a pitching rotation at best and have an inferior roster next to most of the teams also vying for baseball's postseason.
They're so ill-equipped, in fact, to play in October that Thursday night would have been the perfect opportunity to bring all their liabilities to bear, to unofficially say goodbye to their divisional title and wild-card dreams.
No power hitter. No Cy Young candidate or Hall of Famer in training to speak of. And 39 games against mostly more talented and experienced teams. Like the Phillies, who were a few outs from opening a 21/2-game lead in the National League East wild-card race, about to take three of four games in a series deemed crucial by Frank Robinson, the gray-flecked Hall of Famer who's been doing more muttering than managing lately.
All that was typed at 9 p.m. Yet by 9:50 Thursday night at Citizens Bank Park, The Ownerless Team That Could still can.
After the Nats generated two runs in the top of the eighth inning to complete the sweetest of comebacks from four runs down, a 5-4 win that secured a series split and enabled Washington's baseball team to creep within a half-game of the Phillies, Robinson was asked if it was a reach to consider this the turning point of the season.
"Yes, it is [a reach]," the manager shot back, almost incredulous.
Leave it to Robinson to bury the hyperbole and bring perspective to the moment. Maybe turning 70 at the end of this month makes him a wise, old head. Maybe he knows eking out a one-run win when you've lost the previous 16 of 18 one-run games is not some penultimate moment in a 162-game season.
Or maybe this is just the season-long character of his left-for-dead team, a clubhouse that changes moods more than Robinson changes relievers. They went from a brooding, bummed-out club after a 2-1 loss in the afternoon to pumping up the volume on a Snoop Dogg video after the nightcap of the day-night doubleheader.
What's Al Pacino's line in Godfather III? "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in." That's what this maddening team is doing to the District's baseball psyche lately, pulling them along on some torturous, improbable ride that may end badly but you cannot help but stick around to watch.
"Nights like tonight make you feel like no matter what happens you can claw yourself back in it," said Preston Wilson as he stood beside his cubicle in the visitor's clubhouse. Wilson had just pelted a single into left field for the tying run in the bottom of the eighth inning of a game the Nationals were about to lose.
Heading into the eighth inning of the nightcap, the Nats looked lethargic enough that this could have been the day their postseason hopes unofficially died. Which almost seemed apropos.
Because Citizens Bank Park is where it all began, Opening Day for Washington's new team, the return of baseball to the nation's capital.
The Nats were baseball's best story the first three months of the season. On July 3, they led the most competitive division -- the .500-or-better NL East -- by 51/2 games, winning on guile and grit more than anything. With a team devoid of current or future stars, the seamheads kept saying they were doing it with smoke and mirrors. They said one-run games even out over the course of 162 games. But they were supposed to be the jaded doomsayers, right?
Oh, how it pains to admit they were absolutely on the money.
In many ways, the Nats have found out who they are, what they have always been. They are the amnesiac from "Memento," a movie about a guy who wakes up next to a dead man and has to retrace his life to find out the awful truth. You can't escape your past, and the Nats have to finally deal with theirs:
They are the Montreal Expos playing in an American city.
And yet, just when you want to put a fork in them, they resuscitate themselves. They display a moxie rarely seen the past month and a half. That 2-1 loss during the afternoon was not such an eyesore after all.
Okay, Atlanta has not lost a division title dating from 1991. The Braves woke up Thursday with a five-game lead. And, yes, the wild card will be rough to capture, too. (Wild card for dummies: the three division winners secure automatic bids to the postseason while the team with the fourth-best record in both leagues secures the final spot.) Houston has three high-quality starters in Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt. And discounting either the Marlins or the Mets would be short-sighted as well.
And some days neither Brad Wilkerson nor Wilson (113 strikeouts) can make a productive out. Wilkerson is a take-an-extra-base, hustling dervish on the field. He is also a No. 6 hitter on a very good team. But he bats leadoff for the Nationals, which means Robinson has no real leadoff man.
There was a player in the farm system who might have taken that role, but Brandon Watson was sent down after managing three hits in 19 at-bats. Jim Bowden, the interim general manager, thought it was better to purchase the contract of 33-year-old left-hander John Halama.
Bowden said the object was to win now, which is fine for him to say because he most likely has only a few more months on the job unless he can somehow get this team to the playoffs on a relatively tiny payroll of $50 million. (The Yankees flirt with the $200 million range.) But would it not have been wiser to give Watson a real shot to develop into a player who could get on base routinely and generate runs like leadoff hitters are supposed to do?
Wilkerson has been caught stealing nine times. The Nats have the combined blinding speed of former slugging turtles Bob Horner and Frank Howard.
Maybe Bowden sees what much of baseball sees. Tony Armas barely made it to the sixth inning in the first game and Ryan Drese could not make it to the fifth in the night cap.
Lately, it's been John Patterson and Livan Hernandez or bust. Esteban Loaiza is turning into the out-of-sync right-hander who used to come in and get shelled at Yankee Stadium.
Finally, the offense is extremely anemic. They only hit two home runs at Coors Field during a series with the Rockies. Ozzie Smith could hit two home runs at Coors Field. Great stat: the Nats are 37-4 when they score five runs or more. This would be nice, if there had not been 80 games when they have scored fewer than five runs. The only player to knock in a run in the afternoon loss was Cristian Guzman. A buck-90-hitting Cristian Guzman!
The numbers and the deficiencies make one want to write them off, send them a postcard from Fenway Park or Busch Stadium, call it a nice honeymoon and get back to the business of building a real contender. But then there was Thursday night, a late rally, a pulsating comeback win. Indeed, just when you think they're out they pull you back in.