- The Washington Times - Friday, July 29, 2005

MIAMI — Back when the Washington Nationals were making a nightly habit out of winning one-run games, there was a certain level of energy and confidence permeating through their dugout.

No matter the situation, the players truly believed they were going to find a way to win that game. And more often than not, they did. They stormed to the top of the National League East with the majors’ best record in one-run games: 24-7.

There’s a far different attitude running through the Nationals’ dugout these days. Those close ballgames they used to win with such regularity? They’re now finding a way to lose every one of them, and because of it, their once sky-high confidence has been shattered.

So it was again last night during a 4-3 loss to the Florida Marlins — Washington’s 10th one-run loss in its last 17 games.

“When you’re successful, you have that feeling that you can overcome that hill,” manager Frank Robinson said. “Right now, we’re just not getting it done, and there’s no way you can feel as confident as we were earlier in the year. That’s not their fault. That’s human nature.”

There’s a feeling of resignation around the Nationals (55-48) these days. They’ve now lost five straight games, eight of nine, 16 of 20. They trail the division-leading Atlanta Braves by four games, the wild-card-leading Houston Astros by one game and the third-place Marlins and Philadelphia Phillies by 1-1/2 games.

“We can’t worry about what other teams are doing,” outfielder Jose Guillen said. “We have to fix ourselves.”

But how? There doesn’t seem to be some magic answer to the Nationals’ woes. They simply are doing just enough to lose the kind of games they once won.

In this latest loss, that meant an inability to come back from an early 3-0 deficit. Try as they might to produce a late rally, they once again fell one clutch hit short.

They managed to cut the Marlins’ lead to one with a seventh-inning rally. Vinny Castilla rapped an RBI single to left off Josh Beckett (10-6), knocking the Florida right-hander out of the game. Brian Schneider, who homered earlier, drove in another run with a base hit off reliever Jim Mecir.

But that’s where the rally fizzled. Pinch-hitter Carlos Baerga grounded out to first, advancing the tying run to third, and fellow pinch-hitter Ryan Church struck out looking at a 2-2 inside fastball from Mecir to end the inning.

It was the second-straight day in which Church came off the bench in a crucial situation and struck out. And though the rookie outfielder can hardly be expected to thrive in a role usually reserved for seasoned veterans like Baerga, he’s taking this recent slide hard.

“Wasted at-bat,” Church said of last night’s strikeout. “Rally killer. It’s getting old.”

The Nationals needed to rally late because of that three-run, first-inning hole they put themselves in. Starter Tony Armas Jr. didn’t get a lot of help from his defense [-] shortstop Cristian Guzman let leadoff hitter Juan Pierre’s grounder to his left get under his glove for a generous single [-] but he didn’t help his own cause, either. Armas (5-5) put two more hitters on to load the bases, then watched as all three Marlins came around to score on Paul Lo Duca’s double to the left-center gap.

By the time the Nationals’ defense finally came off the field, Armas had thrown 34 pitches, given up three hits, walked a batter, hit another and uncorked a wild pitch. Inside the Washington dugout, Robinson had a look of bewilderment.

“The way we’re going right now, to give up three runs in the first inning yeah, that put us in a big hole,” the manager said.

Armas’ teammates, realizing the challenge that now lay before them, started having those feelings of doubt creep up once again.

“We’ve been playing from behind so much,” center fielder Brad Wilkerson said. “To do that, it’s mentally and physically draining.”

Aside from Schneider’s third-inning homer, the Nationals’ bats went silent against Beckett, who is now 3-0 with a 1.93 ERA in his last five starts against them. He cruised along into the seventh, striking out eight while walking one, before finally giving up a leadoff single to Guillen.

The Nationals couldn’t even get that play right, though. Despite the fact that he laced the ball to left-center for what should have been a stand-up double, Guillen lost sight of the ball. He stood at the plate for several seconds before he finally located it, and by then, it was too late to try for second.

“I never saw it,” he said. “I had no idea where the ball was. I thought it was a foul ball. That was the first thing that came to my mind.”

Guillen’s mishap didn’t ultimately prove costly, because he scored on Castilla’s single. Still, it had to leave more than a few people in Washington’s dugout scratching their heads, trying to figure out what else can possibly go wrong for this snakebitten club.

“It just seems like whenever the other team scores, we’re not able to overcome it, no matter whether it’s two runs, three, four,” Robinson said. “Whatever they score, we’re not able to overcome it.”

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