- The Washington Times - Monday, August 22, 2005

For more than a month now, the Washington Nationals have been in this skid, this slump, this whatever-you-want-to-call-it. That much has been painfully obvious.

Yet when they returned home late Sunday night after a season-long, 13-game road trip, the Nationals still found themselves in the thick of a pennant race. Five games back in the National League East, 11/2 games back in the wild-card chase.

Somehow, some way, they have managed to weather the storm despite a 13-23 record since the All-Star break. And with the finish line fast approaching — there are 38 games to go, beginning tonight against the Cincinnati Reds at RFK Stadium — they haven’t let their competitors create any distance between them.

That said, there’s no longer any margin for error. For the Nationals (65-59) to emerge on top of the pack by season’s end, they must start making their move now before it’s too late.

“It’s go time,” outfielder Ryan Church said. “It’s the stretch now. You can’t really start giving away games and losing games. We’ve got to start making up ground and start moving up in the division.”

And they have to start doing it in front of their home fans.

In the one (and seemingly only) scheduling quirk that falls in their favor, the Nationals will play more home games over the season’s final six weeks (25 of 38) than any other club in the wild-card race.

Considering their major-league-best 30-13 home record during the first half of the season, that’s good news. Considering their 4-9 record at RFK since, well … maybe it’s not that much advantage.

“It can be a better situation because you have the crowd behind you and you feel more at ease,” manager Frank Robinson said. “But even so, in the second half we haven’t played as well at home as we should. So it’s hard to say [if it will be an advantage] right now.

“The one thing about it, no matter where we are, the offense has got to pick up. It has to pick up, period. In order for us to have any chance, it has to pick up and be more consistent than it has been.”

There were signs of life over the weekend in New York, where Washington scored eight runs Saturday and seven more Sunday. Still, this is a offensively challenged ballclub to say the least, and Robinson desperately needs some of his struggling veterans to turn things on over the season’s final six weeks.

Chief among the culprits of late are outfielder Brad Wilkerson and first baseman Nick Johnson, two top-of-the-order hitters the Nationals usually can depend on. Both are limping their way through a dismal August.

Wilkerson, Washington’s versatile leadoff hitter, is hitting just .164 this month, including one hit in his last 21 at-bats. Robinson sat him Sunday in favor of Church, and the rookie responded by going 2-for-3 with two walks in his first career game as a leadoff hitter. There’s a good chance Church will be back atop the lineup tonight against the Reds, though Robinson said he wouldn’t make up his mind until he arrives at the ballpark.

Johnson, meanwhile, is hitting just .225 in August after showing a brief revival in the wake of his lengthy stint on the disabled list. Robinson met with the slumping first baseman for nearly 30 minutes following Sunday’s game, trying to dissect Johnson’s swing and to figure out how to fix it.

Wilkerson and Johnson have received the bulk of the attention in recent days, but there are plenty of others to blame. Second baseman Jose Vidro hasn’t been himself all season and continues to battle two bad legs. Shortstop Cristian Guzman, as has been well-chronicled, is enduring one of the worst seasons by an offensive player in the last 20 years. Third baseman Vinny Castilla is a shell of his former self and could find his playing time cut into if the Nationals decide to promote top draft pick Ryan Zimmerman from Class AA Harrisburg.

As good as Washington’s pitching has been this month — the overall team ERA is 3.19, the bullpen’s a microscopic 0.87 — there have been a few cracks, most notably from ace Livan Hernandez. The once unflappable right-hander, who starts Thursday’s series finale against the Reds, has given up 19 runs and 34 hits over his last 212/3 innings.

Robinson is not asking for unrealistic performances out of those players down the stretch. If they simply play up to the standards they have set over their careers, the manager believes the team can outlast the others in the race.

But only if they start now.

“What do we have, 38 games to go?” Robinson said. “That’s a big number in football or basketball. But in baseball, right now in this situation, that’s not a real big number. It’s enough room where you don’t have to play perfect baseball. But you’re still running short of time.”

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