Marlins 8, Nationals 4

Up went the red fielding glove off John Patterson's left hand, sailing high above his head, a red flare of frustration burning in the air of another Nationals defeat. This is a rare sight in major league baseball, a player hurling his mitt in the sky, and it immediately brought a swift and strong lecture from umpire Tim McClelland, who assumed Patterson was whining about a safe call on a Florida Marlins stolen base.

But Patterson never listened, never heeded the words of the umpire bellowing in his face. They were white noise in the misery that was already churning in his head.

Long after the Nationals had dropped their third straight last night to the Marlins, 8-4, Patterson would say it was just frustration that led to his gesture. Frustration over a defeat that seemed to almost kill the postseason dream once and for all. Frustration over the sinus infection he woke up with on Wednesday night, that lingered all day yesterday, leaving him feeling woozy and sucking the strength from his right arm.

Frustration with all the little dribbling ground balls that kept rolling just out of his teammates' reach.

Frustration with the pitch that Marlins pitcher Josh Beckett slammed over the left field fence for a home run to lead off the fifth.

"It was a combination of everything," he said. "When you're making pitches and all the balls are finding holes, and when you go through everything else that's going on around here, you saw frustration tonight."

Which is why he tossed his red glove into the air. And why McClelland came running over from third base, jabbing a finger in Patterson's face and the pitcher looked so blankly at the umpire in return.

"I shouldn't have done it," he said before offering a string of apologies -- to his teammates, the umpires, the fans.

But he added, "I was frustrated."

When asked what he meant by "everything else that's going on around here," he shook his head. "Don't get into that," he said.

Still, it seems obvious that the mood has changed significantly around the Nationals' clubhouse these days. The pregame music went last week in Atlanta, turning the happy room into an afternoon tomb. But the smiles left this team long before that. The joy that seemed to bounce off the walls with the winning in May and June, was replaced with somber mumbles and shuffled steps in July and August.

Patterson was one of the players most dismayed by the change in the temperature. Maybe, when he gave up seven runs in 41/3 innings on a night he probably shouldn't have been pitching at all, the frustration of his season -- already damaged by his team's inability to score when he pitches -- had gotten to him.

It seems to have gotten to all of them.

Last night they were bulldozed by Beckett, who fired fastballs past them for almost seven innings. And save for a first-inning run and a meaningless run in the fifth, they didn't touch him.

Later Marlon Byrd would shake his head and say "He was on, throwing 90-91 mph pushed up to 97-98. That's the Beckett that won the last game of the [2003] World Series."

Maybe on another night the Nationals could have let Patterson rest, finding his strength to pitch this weekend against the Braves. But they are out of fresh supplementary arms. Already they've struggled to find pitchers to replace the injured Ryan Drese and the ailing Tony Armas Jr. Patterson has been their best pitcher in these last few weeks. If he couldn't save them tonight, there was no one else.

Still, he looked spent right from the beginning. Florida, unaware of his illness, had already prepared a game plan designed to take lots of pitches and work deep into the count, hoping to wear him down and perhaps wear on his nerves. It worked perfectly. He labored to get through the first inning, throwing 26 pitches and had worked his way up to up over 100 when Manager Frank Robinson mercifully came to get him with two outs in the fifth.

Patterson walked wearily off the field to half-hearted applause from the 27,625 in the stands. On a night when the unthinkable happened and Cristian Guzman pushed his batting average over .200 for the first time since June 30, there wasn't much to cheer about.

"We can make this a miserable last three weeks of the year or we can salvage it and make it a great season," Patterson said.

Already it felt like the beginning of the end.

Nats starter John Patterson, right, heads for a seat on the bench after he was pulled with two outs in the 5th inning against the Marlins. The pitcher gave up nine hits and seven runs.Nats catcher Brian Schneider blocks a late throw to home after the Marlins' Miguel Cabrera scored in the 5th inning on Juan Pierre's two-run single.Nats center fielder Preston Wilson can't catch a ball hit by the Marlins' Jeremy Hermida in the third. Washington has lost three in a row to Florida.