Reds 6, Nationals 2

For more than four months, pitching, and little else, has kept the Washington Nationals in the chase for the playoffs. Their offense often evaporates. Their best hitters look like Little Leaguers for long stretches. But when the sun rises the next morning, the pitching gets back up with it.

Last night, then, was perhaps as significant an evening as the Nationals have had. That they managed just four hits against Cincinnati Reds starter Luke Hudson -- who entered the game with a 7.35 ERA, who had never thrown more than six innings in a major league game -- is not a surprise. That they allowed Hudson to beat them, 6-2, in the first game of a crucial homestand fits in with their history of being dismissed by no-name pitchers. It was, in so many ways, rote for this group.

But the real problems developed in the third inning, when right-hander Tony Armas Jr. gave up four runs, hit for himself in the bottom of the inning, but didn't return for the fourth, the victim of soreness in his right shoulder, the second time this month he has left a start early for that reason. And after the game, the team announced that right-hander Ryan Drese, the fifth starter, will be placed on the disabled list today because of tendinitis in his right shoulder.

Suddenly, a staff that has propped up baseball's least productive offense could be without 40 percent of its starting rotation at a time when the pennant race will be decided.

"You hate to lose Drese, and maybe lose Tony," catcher Brian Schneider said. "This is a key stretch to our season. This is a big run for us."

It began in completely sour fashion. An announced crowd of 35,656 welcomed the Nationals back to RFK Stadium from a 13-game road trip, one in which they failed to take advantage of several opportunities, yet survived. But what followed was a flat performance against Hudson and two relievers. Vinny Castilla and Jose Guillen hit solo homers for Washington, but there were just two singles beyond that. The last 13 Nationals went down in order.

"It has been the whole season for us," Castilla said. "We don't score too many runs. We show signs, but we don't do the job."

In the third, Armas didn't either. When Cincinnati's Edwin Encarnacion hit the first pitch of the inning for a home run, the radar gun registered 83 mph, and Nationals Manager Frank Robinson figured it was a slider.

"I was told it was a fastball," Robinson said.

Armas's zip was gone. He finished the inning, but couldn't go any further. Armas had already left his July 3 start against Los Angeles with tightness in his shoulder.

"It was a concern before, and it's certainly a concern tonight," Robinson said. "We just didn't give ourselves a fair shake tonight, because in the third inning, he couldn't miss a bat."

Armas was replaced by Hector Carrasco. And in a 4-2 game, the Nationals, as is their way, had one true opportunity to score more. In the fifth, Hudson hit Castilla with a pitch to start the inning, and Cristian Guzman followed with a drag bunt that he popped up, but which fell out of Hudson's reach, an infield single.

With Carrasco due up, Robinson pinch-hit Jamey Carroll. The obvious choice, and what the Reds expected, was a bunt. But Robinson called for a hit-and-run, even with Castilla, who has been hampered all year by tendinitis in his left knee, at second.

"Doesn't matter who's running if he makes contact," Robinson said. "Vinny could be running, or whoever. A one-legged man could be running."

Carroll fouled off the first pitch, and the runners retreated. Then, the true foul-up: a miscommunication between Robinson and third base coach Dave Huppert. With Ryan Church and Jose Vidro to follow, Robinson wanted the bunt, but Huppert passed on the sign for hit-and-run.

"I'll take the blame for that," Robinson said.

Carroll was then easy pickings. Hudson threw a slow breaking pitch outside. Carroll flailed at it, unable to connect. And Castilla was out by four feet at third.

"We ran ourselves out of the inning," second baseman Jose Vidro said.

They just might be running themselves out of the season. Armas was being examined last night, and his immediate future will probably be determined today. Whatever Armas's situation, there are five games remaining on this homestand, and the voices in the clubhouse make them sound like must-wins.

"Time is running out, and we seem to not make the adjustment," Vidro said. "If we don't do it on this homestand, we're probably going to sink ourselves way back, and then it's going to be tough to come back.

"The whole ballclub has to go out there and show like we want it. Right now, it doesn't look that way."

Brian Schneider can't reach the throw, which is too late anyway, and Austin Kearns scores to make it 5-2 Cincinnati. "This is a key stretch to our season," Schneider said. "This is a big run for us."Ryan Church is out on strikes for the third time last night. Washington homered twice but had just 2 hits otherwise.