- The Washington Times - Monday, August 8, 2005

For weeks, the Washington Nationals — despite their slow and painful slide — have insisted there’s still plenty of baseball to be played.

Well, not anymore. After yesterday’s lifeless 3-0 loss to the San Diego Padres at RFK Stadium, the Nationals find themselves with almost no more margin for error.

They depart today for their longest road trip of the season — 13 games in 13 days — and tomorrow night kick off a critical, three-game series in Houston against the wild-card leading Astros.

By the time they return home in two weeks, the Nationals’ fate already may have been sealed.

“This road trip’s going to tell the tale, whether we can bounce back and regain any momentum at all or whether we’re going to collapse,” outfielder Brad Wilkerson said.

Based on the manner in which Washington (58-53) has played since the All-Star break, losing 17 of 23 games, the collapse already seems in full swing. And truth be told, there hasn’t been much evidence lately to suggest a dramatic turnaround is in the works.

Consider the events of this just-completed homestand:

• The Nationals lost four of six to the sub-.500 Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers and were swept by a San Diego club that had lost 13 of its previous 16.

• They played much of it without the services of starting catcher Brian Schneider (shoulder) or right fielder Jose Guillen, who, it was revealed yesterday, has a partially torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder. Guillen will get a second opinion today from Birmingham, Ala., specialist James Andrews, and surgery is a possibility.

• They held a nearly two-hour, closed-door meeting Saturday to “clear the air,” as manager Frank Robinson put it, yet still came out and lost the next two games.

“At a certain point, we have to walk the talk,” said general manager Jim Bowden, whose team has held three different meetings in less than two weeks. “We’re doing good at talking the talk; now we’re going to have to walk that talk.”

Somewhere in that convoluted statement lies the truth. The Nationals simply aren’t performing on the field and haven’t for more than a month now.

“That’s what I’m concerned about right now,” said Robinson, who kept the clubhouse closed nearly a half-hour following yesterday’s loss before 36,440. “We’re losing ballgames that we should be winning. And pretty soon it will be too late.”

It likely already would be too late if not for some fortuitous struggles by the teams Washington is chasing in the standings. The Atlanta Braves’ lead in the National League East remained 5 games after yesterday’s ninth-inning meltdown in St. Louis. The Astros, meanwhile, snapped a three-game losing streak yesterday but still lead the wild-card race by two games entering this week’s series at Minute Maid Park.

If the Nationals have any intention of making up ground in the coming week, they will have to put forth an effort more substantial than yesterday’s at RFK, where they managed five singles off the Padres’ Jake Peavy.

In their defense, the Nationals didn’t exactly trot out a major league lineup against the San Diego ace. With several players banged up and others struggling, Robinson shook things up like never before. His starting eight included only two regulars: first baseman Nick Johnson and shortstop Cristian Guzman, who hit second despite his .193 season batting average.

“Hopefully, this juggernaut will break out and score 10 [runs],” the manager said optimistically before the game.

They only came up 10 runs short of that goal.

Washington threatened to score twice in the first three innings, but cleanup hitter Carlos Baerga grounded into a double play to end the first, and pitcher Esteban Loaiza got picked off second base to kill a potential rally in the third.

After that, the Nationals’ offense rolled over and played dead. Peavy (10-4) allowed one hit over the final six innings. He struck out 10 overall and at one point recorded eight of 10 outs on Ks.

“You kind of go out and do the best you can,” second baseman Jamey Carroll said of the depleted lineup.

The best Loaiza (6-8) could muster was seven innings of six-hit ball. Three of those hits, though, were costly. Peavy drove in the day’s first run with a two-out single in the fifth. Eric Young and Xavier Nady later hit a pair of solo homers to pad the Padres’ lead.

So it was that the Nationals packed their bags and prepared to leave town for their most-daunting challenge of the season. They put themselves in this position with their play over the last month. They also can put themselves back in the postseason picture with a renewed effort this week in Houston and beyond.

“It’s right in front of us,” Robinson said. “If we win, we gain ground on them. If we lose, we lose ground on them. It’s as simple as that. But we have to go out and take care of business, reach down deep and find some way, somehow to win at least two of those ballgames.”

And if they can’t?

“Then we’re not playing for anything,” Robinson said. “We’re playing for next year.”

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