Cardinals 6, Nationals 0

Summer drew in a deep breath and made one last, desperate push across RFK Stadium yesterday afternoon, blasting humid air and sunshine at the Washington Nationals and their fans before expiring three hours later in a messy heap at their feet. Farewell. It was fun while it lasted, but the Nationals' lifeless 6-0 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals carried the inescapable feel of the end of a season -- even though, officially at least, there are still a few more weeks left in both summer and the baseball season.

"Angry. Frustrated. Disappointed," Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden said after the game. "A lot of emotions. This hasn't been a good day."

At game's end, many kids among the 41,130 in attendance sat quietly in their seats, no longer able to avoid the realization that school starts today. The Nationals shuffled off the field and dressed for the road, their scoreless streak at 21 innings, their once-promising season on the verge of slipping away from them.

"We all stink," said right fielder Jose Guillen. "There. I said it."

Bowden, meantime, went straight to the Nationals' clubhouse, his stride purposeful, his face blood-red. He slammed the clubhouse door behind him, and disappeared into the office of Manager Frank Robinson.

"You know what? Be a man. Wake up, and do some damage," Bowden said later, seemingly threatening wholesale changes to the team's offense. "Or guess what? After that, Frank's going to do whatever he can do. . . . If they're not hitting, he might as well put other people in there. There are a lot of guys who can score no runs a game."

So, a team that once seemed to embody hope has been reduced to shreds and scraps: An offense that literally cannot score. A pitching staff with more sore arms than healthy ones. A manager who has no answers. A general manager on the warpath. And four games, beginning tonight, in Atlanta against the Braves, with nothing less than the season riding on them.

"It's either put up or shut up now," said left fielder Brad Wilkerson. "This series is going to tell a lot." If the Nationals fail to win in Atlanta, he added, "We might want to cash it in early."

The Nationals last scored a run in the fifth inning Friday night. They were shut out by Jason Marquis on Saturday, and yesterday the Cardinals' bullpen did the deed, piecing together nine scoreless innings from five relievers on a day when scheduled starter Mark Mulder was scratched because of a stiff neck.

Right-hander Brad Thompson (2-0) got the win for St. Louis with three scoreless innings, adding his name to the list of undistinguished pitchers who beat the Nationals during this six-game homestand, a list that includes not only Marquis, but also Cincinnati's Brandon Claussen and Luke Hudson.

"We shouldn't play like this at home," Robinson said. "It's unacceptable."

The offense's latest dud ruined a serviceable outing from lefty John Halama (0-1), who came out of the bullpen to start in place of injured Ryan Drese. Halama's only misstep was the one-out double he allowed to David Eckstein in the sixth, which led to three St. Louis runs that came without benefit of another ball leaving the infield. The Nationals walked two batters in the inning and permitted the Cardinals to pull off a double-steal, with Jim Edmonds sliding home safely.

The Nationals had only one real chance to score meaningful runs yesterday, and the way in which they blew it says pretty much all that needs to be said about the state of the team. In the fourth inning of a still-scoreless game, cleanup hitter Jose Guillen, the team's leader in home runs and RBI, came to the plate with runners on first and second and nobody out. The crowd roared to life. The Nationals moved to the top step of their dugout.

And Guillen bunted.

He bunted back to the pitcher, Thompson, who turned it into a forceout at second. The next batter, Preston Wilson, grounded into an inning-ending 6-4-3 double-play, and Guillen, having just barreled into second base, sat numbly in the infield dirt for perhaps 30 seconds, waiting for someone to bring him his hat and glove.

"I did it on my own," Guillen admitted, taking Robinson off the hook for the decision. "I was just trying to make something happen."

For his part, Robinson held his tongue when asked about Guillen's bunt.

Wilkerson did not.

"We need to not do these things," Wilkerson said. "When you have your best hitter at the plate and you're struggling to score runs, you need to swing the bat."

And with that, the Nationals slouched toward their bus, which then rumbled toward the airport, leaving summer and all its promise behind.

After catcher Gary Bennett threw to second, the Cardinals' Jim Edmonds beats the ball on its return and is safe at home on a delayed double steal in the sixth.Yadier Molina beats the throw to Nick Johnson, thwarting a double-play attempt that would have held the Cards scoreless in the sixth. The frustration grows for Jose Guillen and the Nationals. General Manager Jim Bowden sounded off after the game: "If they're not hitting, [Manager Frank Robinson] might as well put other people in there. There are a lot of guys who can score no runs a game."