- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 24, 2005

With official elimination from the National League wild-card race creeping ever closer, the Washington Nationals must turn their sights on other end-of-season goals.

At this juncture, that means two things: Finishing with a winning record, and not finishing in last place in the NL East.

It may not seem like much, but it’s all this team has to play for during the season’s final week-plus.

So while last night’s 5-2, 10-inning loss to the New York Mets may not garner as many headlines across the country as, say, those involving the Yankees, Red Sox, Indians, White Sox, Astros and everyone else still battling down to the wire, it did matter to the Nationals.

That’s because fourth-place Washington (78-76) now leads New York by only 1-1/2 games, with two more head-to-head matchups at RFK Stadium this weekend. With this loss, the Nationals now need to go at least 4-4 to wind up with 82 wins, a significant accomplishment for this team in its first season in D.C.

“We want that. We want to finish over .500,” said Carlos Baerga, whose pinch-hit homer in the ninth sent last night’s game into extra innings. “We’re going to keep fighting hard. We’re going to try to win as many games as we can.”

By all accounts, the Nationals are trying to do just that, even if elimination is possible as soon as tomorrow. If not, they surely wouldn’t have fought back to tie last night’s game with two outs in the bottom of the ninth.

Trailing 2-0 entering the inning and having been stymied by Mets pitching all night, Washington stormed back and gave the crowd of 30,194 reason to cheer at last. Rookie Ryan Zimmerman started the rally with a one-out single, his third hit of game, raising his batting average to a .440. Pinch-hitter Ryan Church lined out, but Baerga followed by belting Roberto Hernandez’s 1-0 fastball into the right-field bullpen for his second homer of the season.

For a brief moment, the magic was back at RFK.

“We haven’t seen that in a while,” manager Frank Robinson said.

The moment was fleeting at best. New York immediately retook the lead in the top of the 10th, when reliever Gary Majewski walked Marlon Anderson, shortstop Deivi Cruz booted Jose Reyes’ grounder and Carlos Beltran crushed Majewski’s 3-2 fastball to right for a game-winning, three-run homer.

“I made a mistake,” Majewski (4-4) said. “And he gets paid to hit mistakes.”

It was only the second home run surrendered by the right-hander in 81-2/3 innings, but it was the latest in a string of costly homers surrendered by Washington’s fatigued relievers during the last month.

“Late in ballgames, we’re setting ourselves up for failure by walking people, walking the wrong people,” Robinson said. “And then we’re falling behind guys who can hit the ball out of the ballpark. It has nothing to do with fatigue.”

One guy who certainly doesn’t look tired at this late stage of the season is Esteban Loaiza, who last night pumped out his 24th quality start of the year (13th in his last 17 appearances) yet was handed another no-decision because he left in the seventh trailing 2-0.

This hasn’t been lost on Washington’s front office and coaching staff, which understands the need to re-sign Loaiza this winter.

“I’m not a general manager, but who’s going to replace him if he doesn’t come back?” Robinson said. “Where are you going to get that type of production? If a guy like that doesn’t come back, then you’re on the market for someone just like him.”

Loaiza’s re-signing could prove pricey in itself. He has a $2.9 million mutual option on his contract for 2006, meaning both he and the club have to agree to pick it up. The Nationals would make that rubber-stamp transaction in a heartbeat, but Loaiza is going to be tempted to test what figures to be a weak free agent market.

Pitchers with ERAs in the mid-3.00s and a track record of five straight seasons with 30 or more starts usually don’t come cheap, but Washington’s new owner might be wise to overpay for Loaiza and ensure the club keeps him alongside starters John Patterson and Livan Hernandez.

“I do want to [come back],” said Loaiza, whose 11 wins might easily be 17 or 18 with a little more run support. “It’s a good group of guys. It’s a good atmosphere. It’s not over yet. We’ll just see what happens in the winter.”

The only two runs he surrendered last night were in part a product of bad luck. Cliff Floyd’s two-run single off the wall in left-center was the big blow, but it was made possible by a pair of infield singles, the first of which knocked second baseman Rick Short out of the game.

Short went far to his right to make a diving stop of Reyes’ grounder. His throw to first was late, but of more concern to the Nationals was the fact that he remained on the ground, writhing in pain and holding his left arm gingerly.

Short was eventually helped off the field, having partially dislocated his shoulder. He’ll undergo an MRI today, but with only eight games left in the season, it wouldn’t be surprising if he’s done.

“I don’t see him bouncing back from this in a short period of time,” Robinson said of the 32-year-old rookie. “It’s too bad.”

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