- The Washington Times - Monday, September 12, 2005

Inside a moribund Washington Nationals clubhouse Sunday evening, the sting of a 9-7 loss to the Atlanta Braves still fresh, outfielder Ryan Church was asked how this club could possibly recover from perhaps its toughest loss of the season.

“I’m glad we’ve got a day off,” Church said.

This one took some time to get over. It’s not every day a team rallies from six runs down, only to blow it with two outs in the ninth inning.

But once the sting wore off yesterday and the reality of the situation sunk in, the Nationals (73-71) came to understand that hope isn’t all lost. Not yet, anyway.

They may have just slogged their way through a frustrating, 4-6 homestand against division rivals, but during that time they lost only one game in the National League wild-card standings. On Sept.1, they stood three games back. On Sept.12, they stood four games back.

So with 18 games to go, beginning tonight against the Mets in New York, Washington still improbably finds itself alive — if not well — in the postseason race.

“It’s a devastating loss,” Church said on Sunday. “But again, you look at the race and it’s close. Yeah, we’re running out of time, but anything can happen, especially with everybody playing each other.”

Actually, for the first time in more than two weeks, the Nationals won’t be facing an opponent in the race. The Mets (71-72) may mathematically still be in the running, but they’ve slumped mightily during the last week and have been all but written off at 51/2 games behind the wild-card leading Florida Marlins.

Perhaps Washington can take advantage of a wounded opponent for a change, though history isn’t necessarily in its favor. Not only will the Mets be starting two pitchers (Tom Glavine and Jae Seo) during this series who have dominated the Nationals this year, but manager Frank Robinson also won’t have his ace on the mound tonight as originally planned.

Right-hander John Patterson, still feeling the effects of a respiratory infection that plagued him during his last start, has been scratched. He status is day-to-day, but the club continues to hope he can come back to start Friday night in San Diego.

Where does that leave Robinson tonight? In all likelihood, right where he left off Sunday, needing to ask his bullpen for a full nine innings.

That desperation plan didn’t exactly work to perfection against the Braves, with starter Jason Bergmann allowing two runs over two innings, followed by a revolving door of mediocre relievers, seven by day’s end.

Robinson, though, insists he has no other choice with only three healthy and viable starters remaining on his staff. So he won’t hesitate to hand tonight’s game over to his bullpen once again.

“We have to, because we have nobody else,” the manager said. “But there will be a different approach from what we’ve taken out of these last two outings.”

Robinson wouldn’t specify what changes are in store, but it appears he will use some of his more trusted middle and late relievers earlier in the game this time, perhaps asking each of them to log two or even three innings instead of one.

Regardless who winds up on the mound at Shea Stadium, the Nationals know they must come out a more-inspired bunch than they have been in recent weeks.

“We’ll see what happens on Tuesday,” outfielder Brad Wilkerson said. “It was a tough loss, but we’ve got to come out ready to play this week and see what happens.”

If nothing else, the Nationals have shown an uncanny ability to rebound from devastating losses like Sunday’s at RFK Stadium. How many times in the last month has the baseball world been ready to proclaim this team finished, only to watch as it scraps its way back into the thick of the race?

It’s perhaps the defining characteristic of the 2005 Nationals, a club that has defied expectations (both limited and lofty) every step of the way.

“They seem to be able to bounce back and keep their heads up,” Robinson said. “That’s what you have to have over a 162-game schedule. You can’t get down.”

And if the Nationals needed one more reason to believe yesterday, they got it in a memo released by Major League Baseball. The league conducted its annual string of coin flips to determine who would play host to a one-game playoff should there be a tie in the standings at season’s end.

Washington made out pretty good. The Nationals would host a one-game playoff at RFK if they wind up tied with the Philadelphia Phillies or Florida Marlins. If they were tied with the Astros, they would have to travel to Houston for the game.

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