- The Washington Times - Friday, August 12, 2005

HOUSTON — If the Washington Nationals’ postseason chances aren’t officially dead yet, they’re certainly on life support.

With each passing day, there’s less reason to believe this club is going to miraculously awaken from the stupor it has been stuck in for more than a month now.

Even the Nationals’ manager was having a hard time coming up with a reason to be optimistic about this team’s chances following last night’s 6-3 loss to the Houston Astros.

“The pitching, I think, is close enough to where it was in the first half to give us an opportunity to get back,” Frank Robinson said. “That’s the only hope I see. I don’t see any hope offensively.”

Why should he? Aside from a rare scoring outburst once every two weeks or so, the Nationals have shown no signs of regaining control of what was a promising season not so long ago.

Since reaching the All-Star break with the second-best record in the National League, Washington has gone 7-19, fallen three games behind the Astros in the wild-card race, 6-1/2 behind the Atlanta Braves in the NL East.

“Who cares about what happened in the first half?” second baseman Jose Vidro said. “Right now, this team’s sinking pretty fast.”

And nothing short of a complete turnaround over the final 10 games of this road trip (a minimum of seven wins in Colorado, Philadelphia and New York) will save it now.

“It’s just been going and going and going,” Robinson said. “It doesn’t seem like we’re capable of stopping it, of turning it around.”

Perhaps that’s because the Nationals (59-55) continue to struggle at the plate, as they did last night against Houston’s Andy Pettitte. Or because seemingly half their lineup is incapable of running at speeds greater than a rigorous jog. Or because they continue to get shaky pitching from the back end of their rotation, as they did last night from Ryan Drese.

In 5[1/3] mostly futile innings, Drese (3-6) surrendered six runs (five earned) and nine hits. Thus the right-hander extended his recent misery for at least another week. Over his last five starts, he’s 0-5 with a 6.93 ERA.

“He can’t consistently throw the ball where he wants to throw it,” Robinson said. “You don’t know what you’re going to get from one hitter to the next, from one pitch to the next.”

That might not have been as big a problem during the first two games of this series, when the Astros sent out less accomplished pitchers (Ezequiel Astacio and Wandy Rodriguez). The Nationals knew they had a little leeway and thus didn’t need a brilliant pitching performance of their own.

Against Pettitte, the margin for error decreased exponentially. The veteran lefty had, after all, just come off one of the best months of his career (5-0 with an 0.90 ERA).

So when Drese surrendered an RBI double to Lance Berkman in the bottom of the first, the Nationals already had cause for concern. Those fears grew even more in the third, when Drese allowed five straight batters to reach base on four singles and a walk and allowed two more runs to score.

The final straw came in the sixth, when Washington botched a rundown of Morgan Ensberg at second base. Drese snared Eric Bruntlett’s comebacker, then turned and realized he had Ensberg hung up. He ran directly toward the runner, as pitchers are trained to do but inexplicably threw to second as Ensberg started breaking for third. Vidro’s toss to Vinny Castilla then ricocheted off the third baseman’s glove, leaving everybody safe.

Though Castilla was charged with the error, the play’s primary culprit was Drese, who should have made Ensberg commit toward second before throwing the ball.

“Number one, the pitcher didn’t run it correctly from the beginning,” Robinson said. “The runner’s hung there. Where’s he going?”

Drese saw things differently.

“I did that exactly how I’m supposed to do it,” he said.

Regardless, the Astros now had one out and runners and second and third. And after walking Chris Burke to load the bases, Drese served up a three-run double to Brad Ausmus that made it 6-0.

“I don’t know if that cost us the ballgame,” Vidro said. “But it definitely broke the game open for them.”

Given the effort the Nationals put forth against Pettitte (10-8), those six runs might as well have been three dozen. They were shut out on two hits through the game’s first six innings, squandering what few opportunities they had.

Pettitte’s only blemish was a two-run homer by Preston Wilson in the seventh — a mostly meaningless shot by a player who has now struck out in 39 percent of his at-bats as a National (33 of 84). Guillen added a solo shot of his own in the ninth off Dan Wheeler, making the final score look closer than it really was and sending this reeling ballclub off to Denver beginning to wonder if the end has almost arrived.

“We still have a chance. We’re never going to quit,” Vidro said. “We’re only three games out, and we still have a month and a half to go. If you quit now, then you don’t love this game.”

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