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Nationals miss a chance

They got back-to-back-to-back victories in games started by their Big Three pitchers. The question confronting the Washington Nationals last night was whether they could get anything remotely resembling a quality start from a far less accomplished pitcher making his major league debut?

The answer was a resounding "no," and the Nationals' subsequent 4-2 loss to the Florida Marlins left them wondering just how they're going to make it through the season's final 23 games with only 60 percent of a starting rotation.

Left-hander Matt White wasn't the answer in his first career start 11 days earlier, and neither was right-hander Darrell Rasner in his debut last night. The 24-year-old, who had never spent a day above Class AA, lasted just 22/3 innings and gave up three runs, all the Marlins needed to win before a surprisingly small crowd of 24,936 at RFK Stadium.

It was the second-smallest home crowd of the year for the Nationals, ahead only the 23,966 that turned out April 18 to see them play these same Marlins -- and it underscored several key points. First, school's back in session. Second, football season is upon us. And third, this town doesn't appear ready to declare the Nationals (72-67) back in the race just yet.

Tonight's game may help resolve that last point. The Marlins will send dynamic lefty Dontrelle Willis to the mound in search of his 20th win. The Nationals, who now trail the wild-card leading Houston Astros by 21/2 games, will send ... well, manager Frank Robinson still wasn't sure as of yesterday afternoon.

He wound up settling on left-hander John Halama, who has had mixed results in two starts to date but looks like the best option for a Washington team that finds itself in desperation mode the rest of the way.

And if Halama isn't up to the challenge?

"We'll go through the whole staff again tomorrow," Robinson said.

Such is the dilemma facing the Nationals. How do you make it through a pennant race with only three viable starters: John Patterson, Esteban Loaiza and Livan Hernandez?

The answer may be to resort to a four-man rotation down the stretch. It's something Robinson said he's considering, though he likely can't make that move until Monday, the first of Washington's final three off days.

"I'm not thinking long term right now," he said. "I'm thinking about trying to win that one [today]. This is going to be a handful in itself."

If they can get through the week intact, the fourth spot in the rotation could be occupied not by one starter but by the entire bullpen, the Nationals' unquestioned strength at the moment. That group held Florida's potent lineup to one run over 61/3 innings last night.

"It's not the normal way you'd like to do it," said one club official, "but we've built the bullpen up, and those are the guys who have gotten people out."

Members of Washington's relief corps say they're ready and willing to heed the call.

"You'll do anything for your team if they ask," said right-hander Gary Majewski, one of five relievers used last night. "We want to win. If it takes a bullpen game every five days, hey, that's what we're going to have to do."

The Nationals need to get as much as they can out of their pitching staff because their lineup simply can't be counted on to score more than a handful of runs a game.

They managed just two on five hits last night against the unaccomplished duo of starter Ismael Valdez (2-1) and reliever Brian Moehler (three scoreless innings). Veteran closer Todd Jones then finished things off in the ninth for his 35th save, getting rookie Ryan Zimmerman -- the potential tying run -- to fly out to end the game.

"That's a guy we have to beat," outfielder Marlon Byrd said of Valdez. "Especially with the guys they've got coming up behind him. ... We expected to win tonight."

Rasner, forced to share a locker with Travis Hughes in RFK's overflowing clubhouse, made it through two innings unscathed but could not get out of the third. Doubles by Damion Easley and Jeremy Hermida, sandwiched around Luis Castillo's single, brought two runs home and brought stirs from the Washington bullpen.

When Rasner later gave up an RBI double to Juan Encarnacion, the night was over for the organization's 2002 second-round draft pick.

"I'm glad I got this opportunity," Rasner said. "I wish it could have gone a little better for this ballclub."

The Nationals did remain within striking distance and in the bottom of the third got two of the runs back on Brad Wilkerson's 11th homer.

Robinson kept trying everything after that. Not only did he need 61/3 innings out of his bullpen, he also needed to go for broke every time his team had a chance to score a run.

So with two outs and two on in the fourth and the pitcher's spot coming up, Robinson sent out a most unlikely pinch-hitter: Jose Vidro, the usual starting second baseman who has been sidelined with a lingering knee injury. The club has hoped Vidro can help out down the stretch with an occasional at-bat in key situations, and this one certainly qualified. But with a chance to tie the game, he lifted a soft pop-up behind the third-base coaching box, ending the inning.

The Nationals never seriously threatened again.

"I just felt like I had to take a shot early with Vidro," Robinson said. "He didn't get it done, and then we didn't do much else."

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