Reds 5, Nationals 3

On an ideal weekday afternoon, with a hint of a cool breeze, summer may have taken a significant stride toward dying yesterday at RFK Stadium, where the home-standing Washington Nationals stretched out for a nice afternoon nap in the sun, right at the time they should be wide awake. Livan Hernandez, not long ago an ace, didn't pitch to his capabilities, walking three men before his team came to bat. For eight innings, the lineup pushed across exactly one run against Cincinnati Reds starter Brandon Claussen, who virtually defines mediocrity, and three relievers.

So on a lazy summer day, the Nationals put forth a limp 5-3 loss to the Reds that could be, in a week or so, one of the many games the team points to when it looks to recreate losses that should have been wins, defeats that knocked them from the playoff chase. Sure, they are technically still in it. But tell that to the announced crowd of 40,762, workers who might as well have stayed at their cubicles or kids who should have shopped for school supplies, because there wasn't much to see at RFK.

"I'm just going to say the same thing I said yesterday and the day before," said second baseman Jose Vidro, which was perfectly understandable. The Nationals have played this movie, rewound it, and played it again for the last six weeks. They lost two of three in a series to the sub-.500 Reds, and are now 21/2 games behind Philadelphia for the National League's wild-card playoff berth. With the New York Mets winning at Arizona late last night, the Nationals find themselves in completely new territory -- alone in last place in the NL East.

"When you have a group of guys, the talent we have here, it is getting old, definitely," Vidro said. "We expect people to do the job, definitely, on a consistent basis. And there's maybe one day we do it, and we go for three days without doing it. That's the way it is."

And, perhaps, the way it will be, because the schedule now gets more difficult. The next seven games are against the NL's two best teams, three at home against the St. Louis Cardinals, then a four-game series at Atlanta next week. Those seven games will determine whether the Nationals are even within striking distance when the Phillies arrive for three games the following weekend.

"It's going to be one of these series where we can cash it in," outfielder Brad Wilkerson said, "or bounce back, show some heart, and play some good baseball."

Presumably, if they could just choose to play good baseball, they would have done so long ago. The Nationals have been well aware of the stakes for the past month, when the days have clicked off the calendar and they have, at best, treaded water. During that time, they had their chances, and it was no different yesterday, with Hernandez, a 14-game winner, on the hill against Claussen, a .500 pitcher with a 4.50 ERA.

But Hernandez, bothered again by his ailing right knee, showed again he isn't the pitcher from the first half of the season. Those walks in the first included one with the bases loaded to Austin Kearns. He allowed three hits in the fifth, and the Nationals were down 2-1. He gave up a leadoff homer to Ken Griffey Jr. in the seventh, and the deficit became two. The way the Nationals are hitting, that kind of margin can seem insurmountable.

"You can't worry about the lack of runs," Manager Frank Robinson said of his pitchers. "But you're human beings. It gets in your head a little bit, and it takes more out of you. 'I can't let them score.' "

How else could the pitchers feel? Take the bottom of the sixth, when the Nationals trailed 2-1. Preston Wilson hit a one-out double. Vinny Castilla singled him to third. Here's the opportunity, first and third with one out. Why in the world have the Nationals had so much trouble scoring in this situation?

"Great question," said catcher Gary Bennett, the next hitter. "I wish I had an answer, or someone in here had an answer."

Bennett didn't answer with his bat. Claussen started him with a ball, then threw a fastball, one Bennett felt he could handle. All he needed was a fly ball, something to the outfield to score Wilson from third and tie the game.

"That was the one to do it," Bennett said, "and I just swung through it and missed it."

From there, he battled with Claussen. He popped to shortstop. The run didn't score. Robinson inserted Carlos Baerga to pinch-hit for Jamey Carroll -- who was 2 for 2 -- and Baerga grounded to third, ending the inning.

"A real big spot for us," Robinson said.

Now, the team in general is in a real big spot. The Reds scored two more in the seventh -- one charged to Hernandez, who allowed four runs in six innings, and the other charged to reliever Joey Eischen -- to cruise into the ninth up 5-1. Wilkerson hit his ninth homer of the year, a two-run shot, to get the Nationals within two. Vidro then singled, bringing the tying run to the plate.

But Nick Johnson grounded into a fielder's choice on a diving play by third baseman Edwin Encarnacion, who made several brilliant plays in the series. And with two down, Jose Guillen took a called third strike from closer David Weathers. Guillen walked slowly back to the dugout, flipped his bat once, end over end, and stared straight ahead.

They have won consecutive games only twice since the all-star break. They show up after each loss, vowing to string something together, and they don't. And they are doing it as summer draws to a quiet close.

"One game, we look like we're ready to go, to get it started," Robinson said. "And the next day, we fall right back into the rut."

Livan Hernandez waits while Ken Griffey Jr. circles the bases after his solo home run in the seventh inning gave the Reds a 3-1 lead. Hernandez gave up four runs on 10 hits and three walks in six-plus innings.Jose Vidro is unable to make a force play on Ken Griffey Jr., who is safe at second on Sean Casey's infield single.