Cardinals 6, Nationals 0

As far as second-half collapses go, this was about as disastrous as they come. Not the Washington Nationals', but rather the one by St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Jason Marquis.

His sinker took him to an 8-6 record before the all-star break. But then his sinker stopped sinking. And the home runs started coming, along with the walks and the hits. In his most recent start, Tuesday in Pittsburgh, he gave up seven earned runs in a 10-0 loss to the Pirates.

Yesterday he was given a last-minute start against the Nationals.

"Those are the guys that give us the most trouble," Washington Manager Frank Robinson groaned.

And in the bountiful confines of RFK Stadium, against the meager Nationals offense, Marquis suddenly looked like Greg Maddux in a 6-0 victory over Washington. So good, in fact, that he was two pitches -- a gentle Cristian Guzman line drive that fell at the feet of the left fielder and a Marlon Byrd single to short center -- from a perfect game.

Such is life for the most perplexing team in baseball.

"The more the pitcher struggles, the higher the ERA, the worst we do against him," Robinson said later.

The manager looked dazed. Just the night before, after a 4-1 victory over the same Cardinals, a game in which his team scrapped and fought and worked to make something, anything happen, he smiled wanly and wondered if his Nationals could carry the same intensity into yesterday's game.

News that Marquis (10-13) would start should have been a gift for the Nationals. They were scheduled to face Mark Mulder, a 15-game winner with ferocious pitches. Instead they were given Marquis, who was probably a poor start away from a permanent spot in the Cardinals' bullpen. And they did nothing with the opportunity, all the while solidifying their grip on last place in the National League East.

"What baffles me is how we played with energy yesterday and the next day came out and played without any energy and intensity," Robinson said. "You can give it a real good effort every day. We didn't even get a walk."

In a litany of empty second-half performances this year, yesterday's no-walk outing of assorted grounders and fly balls might have been about the worst. Then again, it would get strong competition from losses to Cincinnati's Luke Hudson and Brandon Claussen earlier in the week.

And it seemed especially galling to Robinson because this was a game in which he needed his hitters the most. With injuries depleting the starting rotation, Washington had to call up pitcher Matt White from Class AAA New Orleans and hope he could get somebody out. So unknown was White to the Cardinals that Manager Tony La Russa pleaded to the one player who had faced him -- David Eckstein -- to reveal anything he knew.

Eckstein couldn't remember which Matt White it was -- the one he hit against in Seattle or the one from Tampa Bay.

"I thought you were the smart one," La Russa mocked as he walked away.

Either way it didn't matter. The Cardinals figured out White's changing speeds by the third inning, scoring four runs off him in four innings. White was sent back to New Orleans after the game and reliever Jason Bergmann was called up.

Still, the Nationals could have survived their young pitcher's shaky performance had they been able to get on base against Marquis.

This proved a futile task.

Marquis later said he had been watching old tapes of himself and working extra hours with pitching coach Dave Duncan to force his sinker to sink again. In the past few games he had been pitching almost afraid, he said, moving his pitches around the plate instead of just throwing strikes. Yesterday he threw almost nothing but strikes.

And the Nationals did nothing with them.

"We hit the ball right at people and when we hit it hard we didn't hit it hard enough," center fielder Preston Wilson said. "That's how it goes sometimes."

The last out came off the bat of Jose Vidro. It was a dribbler right in front of home plate. Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina leaped up, grabbed the ball and fired to first. Then he raced toward Marquis and buried him in a hug that looked much like Yogi Berra embracing Don Larsen after his perfect game in the 1956 World Series.

It seemed almost comical for a moment, acting like Marquis's win was remotely similar to Larsen's.

After all, it was only the Nationals.

Nationals pitching coach Randy St. Claire and catcher Brian Schneider consult with starter Matt White with the bases loaded in the third inning, when the Cardinals went on to score three runs.Nationals Manager Frank Robinson, leaning on the dugout railing: "We didn't even get a walk."