- The Washington Times - Monday, September 19, 2005

SAN DIEGO — For a brief moment late Saturday night, the Washington Nationals legitimately looked like a team ready to go on a rampage and capture the National League wild card.

Seventeen hours and two crushing defeats later, that look had vanished. The Nationals went from the verge of serious contention to wondering whether all hope finally is lost.

Emotions were at an all-time low after yesterday’s 2-1 loss to the San Diego Padres, a game the Nationals led 1-0 in the eighth inning. This came only hours after they blew a five-run, ninth-inning lead Saturday night en route to an 8-5 loss in 12.

“We had the ballgames,” manager Frank Robinson said. “They were our ballgames to win, and we didn’t finish them off.”

Those two “walk-off” losses in two days may have delivered a knockout blow to Washington’s last-gasp push for the postseason. In the eighth inning of Saturday night’s game at Petco Park, the Nationals trailed the wild-card leading Houston Astros by 2 games. After yesterday’s loss, the deficit was 4 with only 12 games to play.

“It’s going to be tough, to be honest,” left fielder Brad Wilkerson said. “We still have guys that we can take care of ourselves, but with Houston out front, it’s going to be tough. But you never know what can happen.”

Truer words have never been spoken, because the Nationals could never have seen the events of this weekend coming.

Saturday’s late-night loss was bad enough. But it might all have been forgotten had the Nationals pulled out a tight pitcher’s duel in the series finale.

For seven innings, Washington was in position to do just that. Behind another standout performance from starter Esteban Loaiza on short rest and Cristian Guzman’s second-inning sacrifice fly, the Nationals led 1-0 and looked poised to close this one out.

“In the dugout, I think there was good spirits,” Wilkerson said. “I think guys were back to where we were before the ninth inning last night. This was our game to win.”

Or so they thought.

The trouble began in the top of the eighth when rookie Brandon Watson, pinch-hitting for Loaiza, struck out trying to bunt a pair of runners up from first and second.

“I just didn’t execute,” Watson said.

Wilkerson followed by roping a line drive toward first base, a sure double if not for Robert Fick’s lunging grab. Said Wilkerson: “If that ball gets down the line, we’re up 3-0 and it’s a different ballgame.”

Instead it remained 1-0 and in the hands of a Nationals bullpen that has been brilliant most of the season but suddenly has wilted under the pressures of a pennant race.

Right-hander Gary Majewski was given the task of pitching the eighth, and he immediately got into trouble. With one out and a runner on first, he fell behind San Diego’s Brian Giles 3-0 and ultimately walked him. After getting ahead of Joe Randa 1-2, Majewski plunked him in the back. Khalil Greene, whose grand slam Saturday night made him an instant hero in these parts, then lofted a sacrifice fly to center, bringing the tying run across.

“My control wasn’t really there where I wanted it, and I just didn’t get the job done,” said Majewski, making his sixth appearance in seven games. “It’s just unfortunate that our bullpen the last couple of days, things have happened. All year the guys have been great. I guess it’s just blown out of proportion now because we’re so close so late.”

The final blow came in the ninth, with left-hander Joey Eischen on the mound.

Miguel Olivo led off with an infield single deep in the hole at shortstop, but Eischen rebounded by throwing two straight strikes to Fick, the next batter.

Eischen’s third pitch was nowhere close. He plunked Fick in the back with a fastball — “bailed me out,” Fick said later — putting the winning run on second.

Leadoff man Dave Roberts came up next to bunt the runners over. He did his job, tapping the ball in front of the plate. Eischen (2-1) ran to retrieve it, turned and misfired to first. His throw sailed wide, hit Roberts in the back and careened down the first-base line. Olivo came barreling around third to score without a throw and was greeted at the plate by a mob of teammates.

The Nationals could only watch in astonishment, another game having slipped right through their hands.

“I [messed] up today, not the team,” Eischen said. “They played great.”

Which doesn’t matter much at this juncture. Each win, each loss, each critical moment in a ballgame is magnified when a club has such little margin for error.

The Nationals went 4-2 on a tough road trip, but even that wasn’t good enough. Despite their winning record during the last six days, they actually lost a half-game in the standings.

“We needed to be exceptional,” Robinson said. “We needed to finish this road trip off by winning two ballgames that we were leading. That’s what we needed to do. Four-and-two is a successful road trip, but that’s not what we needed at this time of year.”

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