- The Washington Times - Friday, August 26, 2005

Every several days, some member of the Washington Nationals talks about how the time for excuses has passed, how the next few games will make or break their season.

One of these days, it’s going to be too late. And when that time comes, the Nationals are going to look back at weeks like this one and wonder why they couldn’t have taken care of business against teams like the Cincinnati Reds.

The lowly (59-68) Reds are 5-1 against Washington after yesterday’s 5-3 triumph at RFK Stadium before a matinee crowd of 40,762. And if the Nationals ever compile a list of the games they should have won this season, this week’s losses to Cincinnati will be at or near the top of it.

“These are the clubs you have to win ballgames against,” manager Frank Robinson said. “And I don’t mean one ballgame. I’m talking about at least two ballgames.”

Washington (66-61) managed just one win in three tries against the Reds this week after getting swept at Great American Ballpark in May.

Had they won four of those six games instead of one, the Nationals now would lead the National League wild-card race instead of trailing the Philadelphia Phillies by 21/2 games. They certainly wouldn’t be in sole possession of fifth place, where they sat before the New York Mets’ late game in Arizona.

“Each game that goes by, it gets that much more urgent, to the point where you’re almost going to have to be perfect,” said Robinson, whose team has won back-to-back games only twice since the All-Star break. “It’s getting close.”

The task doesn’t get any easier, not with St. Louis (owner of the best record in baseball) coming to town this weekend and a trip to first-place Atlanta next week.

“It’s going to be a gut check for this team,” outfielder Brad Wilkerson said. “It’s going to be one of these series where you cash it in or bounce back and show some heart and play some good baseball. We have to come out with a better attitude, take it to teams and not wait until late in the game. We have to come out with a sense of urgency right from the get-go.”

There was no sense of urgency in the Nationals’ dugout yesterday. Washington seemed content to let the Reds take a 2-1 lead and squander opportunity after opportunity, perhaps believing something good would happen eventually.

By the time it finally did — when Wilkerson launched a two-run homer off reliever Kent Mercker in the bottom of the ninth — it was too late. Cincinnati already had scored five runs, four off starter Livan Hernandez.

Hernandez (14-6) didn’t struggle as much as he did his last time out, when he was flogged for eight runs in two-plus innings. But he wasn’t nearly as sharp as he was during the first half of the season.

The late-season version of Hernandez is giving up more hits (10 yesterday), making more mistakes (a homer by Ken Griffey Jr.) and lasting fewer innings (six) than the old one.

“His problem is, he’s trying to be too fine,” Robinson said. “He’s missing the umpire’s strike zone. Not by much, but they have their zone and he has his zone.”

Hernandez also continues to be hampered by a bad right knee, which he said will be drained of fluid again today.

“If my knee’s 100 percent, it makes a difference,” he said. “But I’m trying.”

Members of the Nationals’ stagnant offense insist they are trying, too, but they continue to struggle. Washington managed one run and six hits off another journeyman opponent, Brandon Claussen, who pitched his way out of jams at every turn.

None was more damaging to the Nationals’ psyche than a blown opportunity in the sixth, when they put runners on the corners with one out and left them there as Gary Bennett popped out, and pinch-hitter Carlos Baerga grounded out.

They don’t keep stats for runners stranded on third with less than two outs, but surely the Nationals lead the league in that dubious category.

“You expect people to do a better job in that situation,” second baseman Jose Vidro said. “Maybe one day we do it, but then we go three days without doing it.”

The Nationals had better start doing it soon. If not for the equally maddening struggles of every team in the wild-card race, they might well be out of contention by now. Somehow, though, they remain in the running with 35 games to go. And that seems to be the only thing keeping the club from imploding.

“Nobody’s grabbed the bull by the horns and run away with it yet,” Bennett said. “There’s five teams left, and it’s pretty much in the air for the five of us.”

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