- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 20, 2005

NEW YORK — The opportunity was staring them right in the face. They could see it on the giant out-of-town scoreboard at Shea Stadium, which clearly showed both the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies getting crushed.

Win this game and the Washington Nationals would be back atop the National League wild-card standings.

If only they could come up with that one clutch hit that has seemed to elude them every day for more than a month now.

They didn’t. The New York Mets did. And that’s all there was to say about Washington’s 1-0 loss before a crowd of 38,196, a heart-wrenching setback for a club that was in prime position to capitalize on its playoff rivals’ misfortunes.

Instead of taking back the wild-card lead they once controlled, the Nationals (64-58) fell a game behind the Houston Astros. In fact, they’re now fourth in the standings, a half-game behind the second-place Phillies and Florida Marlins, just 1 games ahead of the hard-charging Mets.

“The scoreboard’s right there in front of you. Yeah, you’re very aware,” manager Frank Robinson said. “But it doesn’t make any difference what the other clubs are doing. If we don’t take care of our own business, it doesn’t make any difference. None whatsoever. You can’t gain ground on anybody by losing.”

And you can’t avoid losing without scoring at least one run, a simple-enough task that proved too daunting for the Nationals on this night.

It left an exasperated Robinson seething over his club’s inability to push even one run across against unheralded Mets starter Jae Seo.

“I don’t [care] about Jae Seo,” Robinson said. “Everybody who goes out there and changes speeds [dominates us]. It’s as simple as that. We make no adjustments, none as hitters.”

The Mets didn’t exactly put on a fireworks display against Washington starter John Patterson, but they managed to get the one big hit their opponents could not.

It came in the seventh inning, when Victor Diaz sent a sharp liner to right that easily scored Ramon Castro, who moments earlier had doubled down the left-field line.

That was the only run New York scored, and it was the only blemish on Patterson’s otherwise spotless pitching line.

“It’s frustrating to go 1-0 and lose,” said Patterson (7-4), who actually lowered his ERA from 2.44 to 2.38. “But what could I have done different? Honestly, if I go home tonight and wonder what I could have done differently, I wouldn’t do anything.”

Patterson might not have suffered such a tortured fate had his teammates managed to produce anything against Seo (5-1) and Mets closer Braden Looper, who earned his 24th save with a scoreless ninth.

Robinson played every card in his hand. Every one of them was trumped.

He called for a suicide squeeze in the top of the second, with one out, a speedy runner (Preston Wilson) on third and an adept bunter (Jamey Carroll) at the plate. Wilson sprinted toward home as Seo delivered his first pitch, but Carroll fouled off the outside slider, and that was that. Rather than taking an even bigger risk by leaving the squeeze on, Robinson had Carroll swing away. He wound up flailing at a 2-2 fastball for the second out; Patterson then flied out to end the inning.

“[Seo] was just throwing a little bit of everything,” Carroll said. “He threw all those changeups and splits, and he was making us swing at all of them.”

The Nationals had only one other legitimate scoring opportunity (in the eighth), and once again Robinson used every trick in his bag to try to push a run across. When a gimpy Vinny Castilla blooped a double to right, he brought in Cristian Guzman to pinch-run. When Carroll subsequently sacrificed Guzman to third, he brought in his best pinch-hitter (Carlos Baerga) to drive in the tying run.

Baerga, though, walked on a 3-2 pitch, leaving the game in Brad Wilkerson’s hands. The Washington outfielder was hitting .325 with two outs and runners in scoring position, but he fouled off four pitches from Seo before finally getting caught looking at an inside fastball.

“He threw me a great pitch to strike me out,” said Wilkerson, who has struck out 123 times this season. “But it shouldn’t have gotten to that point. I should have put the ball in play three pitches before that.”

Jose Vidro followed Wilkerson with one last chance to drive in the run, but he lofted a lazy fly ball to center on the second pitch, killing the rally and leaving his manager feeling hopeless at this late stage of the season.

“You can only pull so many strings,” Robinson said. “You try to put yourself in position to win the ballgame. We got those opportunities. We just don’t get the big, tough hit. …

“It’s August. If they don’t get it by now, there’s no way they’re going to change.”

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