- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 20, 2005

As they quietly packed their bags and prepared to leave San Diego’s Petco Park on Sunday evening, it was hard for the Washington Nationals not to think about the immense task facing them over the next two weeks.

Two crushing losses to the Padres over the weekend — both highlighted by ninth-inning collapses — left the Nationals’ up-and-down season at depths not seen in some time.

And in the wake of those losses, which leaves Washington four games back in the National League wild-card race with just 12 to play, it was not inappropriate to wonder whether this remarkable season had reached its inevitable conclusion.

“The season’s not over,” reliever Gary Majewski said. “We’ve got 12 games left. … It’s not over until it’s over, until they put an ‘X’ by our name.”

Mathematically speaking, Majewski’s right. The Nationals (77-73) are far from official elimination. Barring a complete collapse this week against the sub-.500 San Francisco Giants and New York Mets or a prolonged winning streak by the wild-card leading Houston Astros, they still will be alive during the final week of September.

But for Washington to overtake the Astros, not to mention the Philadelphia Phillies and Florida Marlins, something crazy will have to happen.

Consider it this way: Even if the Nationals went 9-3 down the stretch to finish with 86 wins, they would need the Astros to go 5-7 just to finish tied and force a one-game playoff at Houston’s Minute Maid Park.

It’s an unlikely scenario, but it’s all this team has left at the moment.

“In ‘99, we had a four-game lead with four to play, and we ended up playing a playoff game against the Mets,” said general manager Jim Bowden, then GM of the Cincinnati Reds. “So there’s a lot of baseball left to be played. It’s tough to lose these two because they were right there. We’ve got to get hot again.”

But is this downtrodden bunch capable of doing so?

For a few hours Saturday night, it didn’t seem so implausible. The Nationals were leading the Padres 5-0 in the ninth inning, needing only three outs to complete their fifth straight win.

Moreover, they were playing with a certain swagger, as if they believed they could do no wrong. They were playing, quite frankly, like they did during their magical run in the first half of the season.

But it all came crashing down during a disastrous, ninth-inning meltdown in which manager Frank Robinson made three pitching changes and closer Chad Cordero surrendered a two-out, game-tying grand slam to Khalil Greene.

The Nationals ultimately lost 8-5 in the 12th inning, and when they returned to the park Sunday, they seemed emotionally scarred. They got seven shutout innings from Esteban Loaiza on short rest but managed just one run off San Diego’s Pedro Astacio and then blew the lead by surrendering a run in the eighth and another in the ninth.

Those kind of back-to-back losses take a toll on teams, even if some players insisted they wouldn’t.

“No, it just [ticks] you off a little more,” left-hander Joey Eischen said. “This time of year there’s no extra tolls. You go as hard as you can and finish hard.”

To that end, don’t look for Washington to shy away from the game’s most intimidating player — Giants slugger Barry Bonds — when he arrives at RFK Stadium tonight. Unlike other managers, Robinson always has believed the best strategy against the man with 704 career home runs is to go right after him.

“If you execute the pitches, understand you can get him out,” said Robinson, who called walking Bonds in most situations “ridiculous, really.”

As for the legitimacy of Bonds’ massive home run totals in the era of steroids, Robinson is willing to give him the benefit of the doubt for now.

“How do you know they’re tainted?” said Robinson, who said recently suspended Rafael Palmeiro’s stats should be “thrown out.” “There hasn’t been proof of that. I think what he’s done has been a terrific run, over the last four years especially. He’s had a tremendous career. So give him his just due. He’s one of the best players to ever play the game, unless something else is proven.”

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