An Aug. 26 Sports column incorrectly said that Washington Nationals shortstop Cristian Guzman's contract will pay him $12.6 million over the next two years. He is due that salary over the next three years. (Published 8/27/05)

The Washington Nationals are turning into a three-month Rehoboth romance. What began as a June infatuation morphed into a genuine love affair by early July. But the doubts festered in August. You saw them for who they really were. And by Labor Day weekend, the truth will hit hard: Frank Robinson's club was merely something for the summer.

Following their series loss to a Cincinnati Reds club that is, oh, 21 games back in the National League Central Division, it is time to finally let them go, to appreciate the Nats for what they were, a very engaging first-half-of-the-season bunch that did not have enough oomph or pixie dust to last.

"I don't want to talk baseball right now," a fed-up Jose Vidro said after yesterday afternoon's 5-3 loss at RFK, making a go-away motion. "No baseball now."

Who can blame Vidro, who harmlessly singled once in five at-bats? The Nats are only 21/2 games back in the wild-card race with 35 games to play, meaning they have a lot of baseball left to secure the best record among non-divisional champions and be the fourth and last NL team to qualify for the postseason.

But in sports, there are usually three things that determine your worth: how you see yourself, how others see you and who you really are. The Nats want to believe they are a team that has not found "a consistent sense of urgency," as Brad Wilkerson put it often yesterday. The rest of baseball sees them as a punchless offense that miraculously found themselves on a pace to win 100 games in early July.

Who they are: a light-hitting club with a wafer-thin starting rotation that has been stuck in the same malaise since the all-star break, unable to gain any real ground on Philadelphia, Florida or Houston.

The Nats are treading water, winning one game and losing two often enough to kill any belief that they could catch any of those teams over the next month or even think about still catching Atlanta in the NL East. The Nats' next seven games are against the best two clubs in the NL, St. Louis and Atlanta. What gives the most optimistic among them any hope that they can win either of those series?

"It's a lot of baseball, a lot of baseball," Livan Hernandez kept saying, over and over, trying to convince himself.

Hernandez was once the ace of this staff, a pitcher whom Robinson could rely on to settle down and make it easy on himself for a few innings.

But he has had only one quality start -- going at least six innings and giving up three or fewer runs -- in his last five outings. Hernandez won 12 games before the all-star break and has won just two games since. Depending on your source, he is either tiring or his placement is a few centimeters off. Either way, when the best player on the Nats cannot carry the club every fifth day their October hopes diminish severely.

Best to look toward next season at this juncture, to ask three seminal questions that will help new ownership build a pennant-contending club a year from now:

1. Should Robinson return? Yes. Less than a week from turning 70, he's gotten more out of this lineup than most expected and has put to bed any notion that he has neither the fire nor managerial sense to stay in the game. He's the only manager Jose Guillen has ever truly responded to. He still engenders complete respect in the clubhouse. Questionable managerial moves aside and his lofty place in the game notwithstanding, Robinson has done enough to warrant at least another year with the Nats.

2. Should Jim Bowden, the interim general manager, return? No. For every Guillen, you still cannot get away from the lack of productivity from the left side of the infield: Cristian Guzman at shortstop and Vinny Castilla at third.

Guzman was inexplicably signed to a four-year, $16.8 million deal, despite not being able to bust a grape in Middleburg. He is batting .195, meaning he does not reach base via a hit more than eight times per 10 at-bats. The 40-year-old virgin has a better on-base percentage.

Castilla at $6.2 million over two years is not as bad, but he just has not rewarded Bowden's faith in his 38-year-old body.

The Nats' pitching numbers are not bad -- their starters have the combined sixth-best ERA in the NL. But beyond the stats, Bowden is responsible for Washington fading at the back end of the bullpen, which has to compensate for all those Nats starters unable to go six innings. He gave up Toma Ohka because Ohka and Robinson did not see eye to eye. Bowden got caught in a numbers game with Sonny Kim, letting the pitcher pass through waivers a second time instead of claiming him before Colorado nabbed him on Aug. 5.

It's nice to tidy up the clubhouse and the team's finances, but that's two live arms the Nationals could have used in August and September, live arms that a sore-shouldered Tony Armas Jr. and Ryan Drese do not have at this moment.

What's more, Bowden received roughly $10 million more than last season to better the Nationals. If they end up finishing last or close to last in the division, a new owner such as Stan Kasten might wonder how that money could have been better spent. Plus, Bowden is really good on television. He needs a break from worrying about hundreds of minor league prospects. "Cold Pizza" is clearly his calling.

3. Since it will be difficult to package Guzman in a deal because he still has $12.6 million due over two years, how can the organization get him to hit?

Bring up Rick Short, who is flirting with the .400 barrier at Class AAA New Orleans, and make him give Guzman his bats back. Short took Guzman's castoffs during a short stint with the Nats earlier this season. Guzman needs to demand that good wood back. Now.