- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 1, 2005

The Washington Nationals have something to play for in the season’s final weekend.

They’re shooting for a winning record in their first season in the District, perhaps a third-place finish in the NL East and the nice vibe that comes from a strong closing in front of your home fans.

“We have a lot of pride,” manager Frank Robinson said yesterday afternoon. “We’re going to go out here and try to win three ballgames.”

That’s all well and good, but when the opponent is still fighting for its playoff life, it’s tough to match that level of intensity and motivation.

So while Robinson certainly couldn’t fault his players’ effort last night in a 4-3 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies — the Nationals scored a run off ace closer Billy Wagner in the ninth and were within 90 feet of tying the game — he couldn’t escape the fact that this game simply meant more to a Philadelphia team that is trying to hang on in the NL wild-card race.

The Nationals (81-79) will have to wait at least another day to notch their all-important 82nd victory and assure a winning season. This night belonged to the Phillies, who gained a game on the Houston Astros and now trail in the wild-card race by one game with two to play.

“We played 160 games to have a chance to get to the playoffs,” Wagner said. “The next two ballgames will be the most important games of the whole year.”

A crowd of 30,375 at RFK Stadium got one last chance to applaud Livan Hernandez, who displayed plenty of grit in his final appearance of the year. Ultimately, it wasn’t enough to overcome a three-man Philadelphia pitching effort that was buoyed by a sizable contingent of fans who made the drive down I-95 for the weekend.

Last night’s game capped a frustrating and painful second half for Hernandez (15-10), who went into the All-Star break with a 12-3 record, 3.48 ERA and visions of the first 20-win season of his career. But the right-hander’s gimpy knee got the best of him down the stretch, and he wound up going 3-7 with a 4.58 ERA in 16 second-half outings.

“I was happy with the job I did,” Hernandez said. “It’s not easy to pitch with a knee like that. But I finished the season, and I didn’t miss a start.”

There’s no understating just how impressive the task of coming to work every fifth day was for Hernandez. Ever since having fluid drained from his knee in May, he pitched in pain. He had to alter his mechanics, and he lost several miles per hour off his fastball.

Even though he decided Tuesday to undergo arthroscopic surgery next week in Miami, Hernandez refused to miss his 35th and final start of the year.

“[The doctor] told me I could stay in Miami and get the operation the next day,” he said. “No, I came back here to pitch. It’s very important for me.”

Said Robinson: “A lot of guys would not have pitched.”

Hernandez didn’t just pitch, he threw an astounding 130 pitches over seven innings. And though he labored from the start, he fought through it and kept the damage to a relative minimum.

Rookie of the Year candidate Ryan Howard belted a solo home run in the second. Two singles — one by Jimmy Rollins to extend his hitting streak to 34 games — and a double accounted for two more runs in the third. And three singles pushed one more run across in the sixth.

Still, Hernandez, who expects to be 100-percent healthy well before the start of spring training, kept plugging away and wound up lasting seven innings, raising his total to 2461/3. That made him the NL leader for the third straight year.

“He’s a warrior,” teammate Ryan Church said. “If they had let him, he would have stayed out there and thrown 200 pitches. If you look up ‘gamer’ in the dictionary, you’ll find a picture of him.”

The Nationals didn’t give Hernandez much offensive help. Brad Wilkerson led off the bottom of the first with a double and eventually scored on Preston Wilson’s groundout — his long-awaited 90th RBI.

Wilson scored Washington’s second run when Rollins threw wide trying to turn a double play in the fourth.

Otherwise, the Nationals were held in check by Phillies starter Cory Lidle, who allowed one earned run in 62/3 innings to improve to 6-0 in 10 career games against the Montreal/Washington franchise.

Philadelphia’s bullpen then shut the door on a late Washington comeback, though not without some trepidation. Ugueth Urbina pitched out of a jam to end the seventh, and Wagner struck out Cristian Guzman on three pitches to get out of the eighth. But Wagner surrendered a run in the ninth to make it 4-3 before getting Nick Johnson to pop out with the tying run on third and secure his 37th save.

“Those last two guys they put out there are tough customers,” Robinson said. “When you have a chance to score runs on those guys, it’s pretty special.”

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