Marlins 4, Nationals 2

Last night was the chance, the opportunity to make up ground, not lose it. On the mound for the Florida Marlins wasn't Dontrelle Willis, the Cy Young candidate. It wasn't A.J. Burnett, the likely prize of the upcoming offseason's free agent market. It wasn't Josh Beckett, the MVP of the 2003 World Series, still able to dominate.

No, the opposing pitcher at RFK Stadium was none other than 32-year-old journeyman Ismael Valdez. And when Valdez takes the mound, the team he faces feels pretty good about itself.

"We expected to win tonight," Washington Nationals outfielder Marlon Byrd said. "It's going to be a tough one tomorrow, and the day after that."

In fact, the tough one came a day early. With the playoff chase quietly settling east of Capitol Hill, the Nationals responded without a peep, managing just five hits against Valdez and two relievers in a decidedly lackluster 4-2 loss.

"You have an opportunity," Manager Frank Robinson said, "that's gone by the board."

Never mind that the Nationals were starting right-hander Darrell Rasner, who had never before pitched in a major league game. Never mind that when the National League's wild-card race came to RFK, the second-smallest crowd of the year -- just 24,936 -- showed up to take it in. It wouldn't have mattered, because the Nationals did little to get anybody excited.

"We got ourselves out tonight," Byrd said. "That's a guy we've got to beat, especially with the guys coming behind him."

That would be Willis, who will go for his 20th victory of the season tonight, when he'll face journeyman lefty John Halama for the Nationals. He'll be followed tomorrow by Beckett, not at his sharpest, but still formidable, and Washington will counter with budding ace John Patterson.

Washington won the first game of this four-game series Monday afternoon behind a stellar effort from right-hander Livan Hernandez. But the best chance for the Nationals to take three of four -- and thus pass the Marlins in the wild-card race -- was to win the first two. Instead, their three-game winning streak is over and they now trail the Houston Astros by 21/2 games in the wild-card race.

"This is September," first baseman Brad Wilkerson said. "We can't be giving at-bats away and giving games away."

Wilkerson provided the only offense the Nationals could muster, a two-run homer in the third. But they never managed more than one hit in an inning, and their best threat came in the fourth, when Brian Schneider doubled with one out and Cristian Guzman walked an out later. That led Robinson to send up Jose Vidro, out since last Thursday with an inflamed right knee, as a pinch hitter.

"I felt like I had to take a shot early," Robinson said.

That was the sense that was building, that hits would be hard to come by. Vidro, though, popped out in foul ground to third baseman Miguel Cabrera, and the fans remained quiet.

Such is the flawed nature of the teams in this wild-card race that a has-been veteran, Valdez, faced off against a kid who had never appeared in a major league game before, Rasner. The more surprising participant was Rasner, a 24-year-old who spent the entire season with Class AA Harrisburg and was forced into the situation because of injuries to starters Ryan Drese and Tony Armas Jr.

He arrived in Washington Monday night and came to the ballpark for the first time yesterday, ready to take the ball. "Exciting, more than anything," was how he described his emotions. Those who know him expected calm.

"The biggest thing to him, really, is poise," said Nationals outfielder Ryan Church, who played with Rasner at the University of Nevada. "He doesn't get all shaky. He's really composed out there."

And for the first two innings, Rasner looked completely as such. He walked the first major league hitter he faced, Luis Castillo, but quickly induced a double-play ball. He was unfazed when third baseman Vinny Castilla committed an error to start off the second, recorded his first big league strikeout when he got catcher Paul Lo Duca swinging, and through two, things were scoreless.

Then, his curveball escaped him.

"I wish it was different," he said.

He allowed an RBI single to Castillo and then run-scoring doubles to Jeremy Hermida and Juan Encarnacion. And with two outs in the third, trailing 3-0, Robinson lifted him. That the Nationals' stellar bullpen did everything that could be asked -- throwing 61/3 innings of one-run ball -- mattered not, because Florida sensed it had all it needed, even with Valdez on the mound.

"We're fighting for the wild card," said Castillo, who later homered off Mike Stanton and finished 3 for 4. "We have to get in there and try to get their pitcher out of the game. . . . You have to wake up a little bit and score runs early in the game."

The Nationals wouldn't mind waking up and scoring runs at any point. Their last chance came in the ninth, after Valdez had finished his five innings, allowing three hits, and Brian Moehler retired nine of the 10 men he faced. Vinny Castilla led off with a single against closer Todd Jones. Robinson, however, didn't pinch-run for him immediately.

"I wanted to keep as many offensive bullets as I could," he said. Jones responded by striking out Schneider, then endured Carlos Baerga fouling off six pitches before striking him out, too.

Then, finally, Robinson replaced Castilla with the speedy Kenny Kelly. But pinch hitter Ryan Zimmerman ended things, floating softly to center. With that, the Nationals silently went to their dugout, on to the clubhouse, and the little crowd that remained filed quietly out of the stadium, leaving the playoff chase behind.

Manager Frank Robinson takes the ball from Darrell Rasner, who lasted 22/3 innings in his first major league start.Nats catcher Brian Schneider and reliever Hector Carrasco meet on the mound after Carrasco committed a balk in the ninth inning trying to pick off the Marlins' Juan Pierre at first base.Luis Castillo scores Florida's second run in the third inning. Castilla also hit a homer. The Nats will face 19-game winner Dontrelle Willis tonight at RFK.