The hole is deep, its sides steep and slick. The dirt stings as it is dumped on the Nationals, losers of 35 of their last 54, as the wise ones of baseball prepare to bury them -- with proper condolences and "nice try" congratulations, of course.

As a grand slam home run by Philadelphia's David Bell landed in the Nats' bullpen last night at RFK Stadium, leading to a 7-1 Philadelphia victory, the season-long drama of baseball's return to Washington -- an underdog saga that, at times, amounted to a kind of multi-month daydream -- finally appeared to be approaching its inescapable, but still bitter conclusion.

Until now, most concerns about the Nationals have been premature. In baseball, teams slump for agonizingly long periods, then stabilize and, finally, just when they seem defunct, arise to rejoin a playoff race and raise havoc. But there are limits to these stagnant, ugly periods. Eventually, the time for patience expires and only deeds, not excuses, will suffice. For the Nats, that time is now. Their numerals are backed against their mis-marked walls.

It's simple. The Nats have nine days in RFK -- the rest of this homestand -- to turn themselves around. Otherwise, on Sept. 11, the same day the Redskins open their season, the Nationals can almost certainly close their delicious interlude as underdog interlopers. The Nats face the Phils twice more, Florida four times and the Braves in three games. If they don't win a half-dozen of 'em, they can probably rest their many hobbling veterans and put their October fantasies in cold storage for the winter.

But don't start the funeral too quickly. The weak-hitting Nats may get a large break at exactly when they need it. By a fluke of the way pitching rotations fall, the Nats will escape meeting five fine starting pitchers during this RFK stand -- Brett Myers and Jon Lieber of the Phils in the next two games, A.J. Burnett of the Marlins and both John Smoltz and Tim Hudson of the Braves. Instead, they'll see those teams' No. 4 and 5 starters, names such as Jason Vargas, Ismael Valdez and Jorge Sosa.

In the next two games, which are as close to "must wins" as baseball provides with 27 games left in a season, Washington will send two of its best pitchers, John Patterson and Esteban Loaiza, against a pair of emergency starters for the Phils -- Eude Brito and Gavin Floyd (14.14 ERA), who aren't even part of Philadelphia's normal rotation. This generosity is mere turnabout in this month of tattered pitching staffs. Last night, the Nats offered sacrificial veteran John Halama to the hungry Phils, who collected six runs in his three innings. If the Nats can return the favor, with Patterson and Loaiza both working on three days' rest after low-pitch-count games, then the Nationals' world will look like a far better place by Labor Day. The Nats now trail the wild-card leading Phils by four games. By Monday, it might be two or six.

"In baseball, you never like to say 'must games.' But these next two are important. I hope Joey [Eischen] and I saved some of the bullpen tonight so we're ready for this weekend," said Mike Stanton, 38, who took one for the team by working three innings despite pitching in his fourth game in three days.

Why was a distinguished veteran of 1,018 games (seventh most in history) used/abused in such fashion? Because either MLB or team president Tony Tavares (guilt as yet undetermined) was too cheap to provide enough Sept. 1 call-ups. The Nats, who'll make more than $30 million in profit for baseball this year, are trying to stay "under budget" at a paltry $54 million. So, over a matter of a few hundred thousand dollars, GM Jim Bowden wasn't permitted to bring up the 10 minor leaguers he wanted. And the three players he was allowed to bring up on yesterday (none pitchers) turned out to be the wrong ones at the wrong time.

"We needed pitching so we wouldn't wear out our bullpen. And we bring up three position players?" said one veteran.

Oh, it's definitely getting testy in Natsland: pull together or be pulled apart.

Teams in such situations often need a spark, especially a contribution from a highly touted but suddenly ahead-of-schedule rookie. Such things don't just happen in pulp fiction. For weeks the Braves, who were staggering, have been feeding off the heroics of 21-year-old, Atlanta-born Jeff Francoeur, who's hitting .340. The record book says that the very best often arrive, and feel at home, at 20 to 22. You just can't hold them back.

Last night, Ryan Zimmerman, who'll be 21 on Sept. 28, played his first game in RFK as a mid-game replacement. From Virginia Beach and schooled at U-Va., the No. 1 draft pick gave the crowd of 28,939 plenty to buzz about.

On the first ball hit to him at third base, he started an around-the-horn double play that caused a gasp. He adjusted instinctively to a tough-hop smash to his backhand, threw to second with a quick, accurate whip motion and, above all, made the play with the kind of aggressive nonchalant arrogance that raises eyebrows. It wasn't a great play, just a tough one made to look simple, sudden and second nature. "I knew [Jimmy] Rollins was running. I had to be quick," said Zimmerman. Hmmm, knows who's running. "Everybody sees he can glove it," outfielder Brad Wilkerson said. "And he's got a nice short batting stroke."

With his first such stroke in RFK, Zimmerman lashed a line-drive double up the left field gap. There wasn't actually a trail of smoke behind it, though someday, many may swear there was. In his next two at bats, he swung at the first pitch twice, lining out to right field and grounding out to short to end the game.

Some players, like Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken, make you sit at attention the first time you glimpse them. Let's withhold judgment on Zimmerman for a while. But not too long, probably. The Nats already know the question: play him now or wait.

"That's a good debate," said Stanton, grinning. "Glad I don't have 'manager' or 'general manager' in front of my name."

Getting Zimmerman in the lineup quickly, at third base or shortstop, would be an excellent idea for the Nats. Most of the pitchers he'd face in the next nine games are hardly better than what he's seen in the minors. What's the risk? That he might help light a fire under the worst-hitting team in baseball? That the Nats might discover a 6-foot-3, 220-pound shortstop, a prototype Ripken pioneered? "Shortstop is a lot of work, but I think I could handle it," Zimmerman said.

"If [he] can just get into a couple of games pretty soon, Frank [Robinson] will see what everybody's talking about," Bowden said before the game. "It jumps out at you."

It jumped out a bit last night.

When you're deep in a hole and everybody's throwing dirt on you, you need to shovel some back out. The Nats don't have many options along those lines right now -- except Zimmerman.

The arrival of "must games" and the introduction of rookies to the lineup seldom go together. No 20-year-old should be seen as a September savior. But, sometime within the next nine days, temptation and curiosity may overwhelm Robinson, who hit 38 home runs for the Cincinnati Reds when he was 21.

If he writes a name that starts with "Z" on his lineup card, even this weekend, it won't come even one day too soon.