This would seem to be the place the dream should end, just as devastating losses over the past few weeks to Atlanta, to Florida, to Philadelphia all seemed to be milestones, games that would go a long way toward eliminating the Washington Nationals as playoff contenders. They arrive today at New York's Shea Stadium for three games against the last-place Mets, still trying to convince themselves of one thing.

"There's still hope," Manager Frank Robinson said.

Because Florida beat Houston, 8-2, last night, the Nationals will begin this six-game road trip -- the latest installment of the season that can be labeled critical and crucial -- trailing in the National League's wild-card race by four games, and they have only 18 remaining. Hope? On the road?

"We're not mathematically eliminated," Robinson said. "But we're in a pretty good hole right now. . . . We still have a chance, and we still keep battling until somebody tells us, 'You're out of it.' "

To date, that has not happened. It could, however, be all but determined by the time the Nationals return to RFK Stadium a week from today. They will pass through Flushing and San Diego to play the Mets and the Padres, against whom they are a combined 5-11 this year. So where, pray tell, does the hope lie?

"We just look at the race," outfielder Ryan Church said. "It's close. We know we're running out of time. But anything can happen, especially with everybody playing each other."

If one thought buoys the Nationals, it is that while they have failed to take advantage of opportunity upon opportunity -- losing 12 of their last 20 games, even though 16 of them were at home -- none of the wild-card contenders has seized the race. That is, at least in part, due to the fact that the contenders -- Houston, Florida, Philadelphia, Washington and, until recently, the Mets -- keep playing each other. That trend continues this week, with the Astros and Marlins playing a four-game series in Houston, with the Marlins hosting the Phillies over the weekend, with the Braves, who lead the NL East, taking on Philadelphia for four games.

The Nationals are the only team in the race facing a week of games against clubs that, entering play last night, don't have a winning record. The Mets are one game under .500 after losing 10 of their previous 12; the Padres lead the NL West, but have dropped three games in a row to fall to 71-72, the latest a team with a record under .500 has ever led a division.

The other reason for hope, as long as they're searching, will be taking to the road. Indeed, it sounds silly to make such a claim for a team that, through June, had the best home record in baseball.

But RFK Stadium has been a den of disappointment in the second half of the season, and every single statistic suggests that, since the all-star break, the Nationals play better on the road. Their record -- 10-19 at home, 11-16 on the road -- is better. Their offensive statistics -- .222 batting average, .343 slugging percentage and 3.17 runs per game at home, rather than .255, .395 and 4.14 on the road -- are better. Even their pitching -- a 4.15 ERA at home against a 3.56 ERA on the road -- is better.

"It doesn't matter who we play or where we play anymore," right fielder Jose Guillen said. "We just have to play better than we've been playing."

Therein lies the most significant challenge of the next few days. The Nationals' second-half struggles have come regardless of the opponent, including losing two of three to the woeful Cincinnati Reds at home, getting swept by San Diego at home, dropping five of their last seven to the last-place Mets. The first half was a success because the Nationals won 17 of their first 27 series, almost regardless of who they played. The second half has been a disaster because they have won only three of their last 19 series.

The task this week could be more difficult because of the uncertain nature of Washington's pitching situation. Right-hander John Patterson, the de facto ace during the tough times since the all-star break, won't pitch tonight, as scheduled, against the Mets because of a sinus infection that developed into bronchitis. That leaves the Nationals scrambling, yet again, to cobble together a pitching performance from a slew of relievers.

"We don't have any options," Patterson said Sunday.

And if they want to remain close to the leaders in the playoff chase, they have no other options but to win this week, on the road against a pair of decidedly mediocre opponents. If they do so, they can remain in it. If they don't, they will fall, perhaps irreversibly, into the ranks of the mediocre themselves.

Are they out of it?

"We come out and play hard, and see what happens," outfielder Brad Wilkerson said. "I don't think you can say either/or yet."

Nick Johnson, second from left, and the Nationals begin a six-game road trip against the Mets and Padres, both of whom they have struggled against. Preston Wilson, left, Marlon Byrd and the Nationals have had precious few chances to get happy since the all-star break, particularly at home, where they have gone 10-19 in that time.