On Sunday, Jose Guillen spoke the truth. He just didn't realize how correct he was. "We all stink," he said, meaning the Washington Nationals. However, Guillen missed the larger point. All of the teams in the National League wild-card race stink.

But one of these smelly clubs is going to go to the playoffs despite its aroma. There's no reason why it couldn't be the Nats, especially if they survive this week's four-game visit to Atlanta, the roughest dates left on their schedule.

At the moment, the Nationals are frustrated and furious with themselves. They can't see the big picture because the image an inch in front of their eyes is so ugly. On Saturday and Sunday, RFK Stadium held 85,384 fans, the biggest back-to-back crowds of the year. The Nats scored no runs on six singles in two games: one total base per 14,231 customers. Oh, that ought to fetch 'em back.

"Unacceptable," fumed Manager Frank Robinson. General Manager Jim Bowden said jobs could roll by Thursday. "There are a lot of guys who can score no runs a game." Hello, Ryan Zimmerman. Choose a position, son. Third base? Shortstop?

Because the Nats are suffering, they can't appreciate the sea of wild-card misery beyond their locker room. "It's either put up or shut up," said Brad Wilkerson of the Atlanta series. And if things go badly? "We might want to cash it in early."

That would be a very bad idea. Over the next five weeks, the wild card will not be won by the team that performs the most heroics but rather by the club, faced with constant embarrassments, which quits on itself the least. Since 1997, no team has won a wild-card spot with less than 90 wins. But you can bet that somebody will do it this year, perhaps with as few as 85 wins. The key to the wild card this season will not be talent, but persistence. And it is the Nats' resiliency that is now under dire duress.

This is when the fun can stop for the Nats or when the excitement can really begin. If the Nats keep berating themselves for imaginary sins, they can drop out of the playoff picture with one bad week. This is a clubhouse with drama queen tendencies. As for Robinson and Bowden, they sometimes sound as if they've been reading "The Power of Negative Thinking." However, if the Nats grasp two central facts -- that their foes aren't very good and that (except for Houston) everybody faces incredibly difficult schedules -- then the Nats are perfectly capable of joining the rest of this Futile Five in a September pennant-race frolic.

Right now, the Nats think they have it bad. But they should look around. On Sunday, all five wild-card contenders lost. And all five -- bunched within 21/2 games -- are just as worried sick as Washington.

Before anyone disparages the chances of the humble Nats, read on. The Marlins, Phillies and Mets are probably already dead. They just don't know it yet.

* Florida's previous 24 games were against teams with records of .500 or below. Now, all 31 games left on the Marlins' schedule are against currently winning teams. That's nuts. Has anybody ever heard of playing 24 straight losers followed immediately by 31straight winners? If Florida was going to make a move, it should have done it by now. It didn't. Soon, the floundering Fish will feel as if they've been tossed on dry land. The majority of Florida's remaining games are also on the road. Is this the worst last-five-week schedule ever?

* What the Mets face may be just as bad. Their next 28 games are against teams with winning records, including 10 against the Braves and Cards! Most are also on the road. New York closes with four games at home against the pathetic Rockies. But will the Mets still be breathing by then? They've been coasting in a soft schedule since the all-star break -- only two of 12 series against currently winning teams. The Mets, like the Marlins, should have made a move. Instead, they just stayed in the pack. Now, they've lost Mike Cameron for the year and Mike Piazza is still on the disabled list. Can Pedro Martinez pitch every day?

* The Phillies are in the same predicament. Like the Mets, their schedule has been friendly since July 19th -- two of 12 series against teams currently above .500. But did they build a wild-card lead? No, they have merely stuck their nose ahead briefly. Now, everything reverses. The Phils not only play 28 of 31 games against winners (including seven with Atlanta) but also have 18 games on the road. How can pitching as poor as the Phils' survive this nightly strain?

Washington thinks it has a tough schedule ahead. And it does -- with only six games left against losers. But all things are relative. The Phils, Mets and Marlins face five straight weeks of unremitting root canal, most of it away from home. At least the Nats can look forward to a 10-game homestand starting this Friday. They also know that nine of their final 12 games will be at RFK. In this race never overlook the value of home field. Every NL East team is a big winner at home, but under .500 away. In particular, the Nats should have an edge on the Phils. They meet six more times -- all at RFK -- including the year's last series.

By now, you may have noticed that there is an elephant in the room. We haven't mentioned the Astros, the one team that does not deserve to win the wild card, but is most likely to get it. In this era of interleague play, regional rivalries and an excessive number of games against division foes, baseball has a dirty secret. Some teams start with a huge, undeserved advantage. This year, Houston won this schedule lottery.

If the final standings ended as they are now, the Nationals would play an astronomical 100 games this season against winning teams. At least other NL East clubs have had a similar burden: the Mets would meet 103 winners, Philadelphia 93, Florida 90.

But what about Houston? As matters now stand, the Astros would play only 55 games against winning teams this year.

The Mets 103. The Nats 100. The Astros 55. Okay, sure, that's fair. On Mars.

Somebody is going to win the NL wild card this year. But, whoever it is, that team will probably feel as if it had thrown away its last chance a dozen times. This month alone, the Nats have lost 1-0, 2-1 and 9-8 after erasing an 8-0 deficit. Since July 4, they've lost on both a walk-off balk and a walk-off walk. Soon their rotation may be so depleted that John Halama will be a starter. The list of indignities seems endless. But every other wild-card candidate has a list of agonies just as long.

Everybody in this wild-card cluster has already started buckling, gagging, choking, bickering and spitting the bit. Nobody's happy. Nobody's confident or truly believes they're good. Almost everybody is utterly terrified of their schedule.

So, if the Nats can keep their heads attached to their shoulders until they return home on Friday, this could still be a fascinating September. Though the Nats may be the last to realize it.

"We're trying to survive," moans Bowden. "The season may be over by" Thursday, groans Robinson.

Buck up. What's coming in these wild-card follies isn't going to be pretty. Just remember: The team that quits last quits best.