Tuesday, September 27, 2005

MIAMI — When members of the Washington Nationals’ pitching staff head home for the offseason Sunday, they’ll do so knowing they did everything within their power to keep this team in the wild-card race for more than 150 games.

It will be the beleaguered position players who will spend a long winter wondering what might have been had they merely produced to their capabilities.

A few more hits here, a key double there and the Nationals might still be playing meaningful games in the season’s final week. Instead, their 4-0 win over the Florida Marlins last night was nothing more than one for the official record.

Hector Carrasco added another win, not to mention six shutout innings, to his impressive resume. Washington (79-78) got back over the .500 mark and pulled into a virtual tie for fourth place with the New York Mets, whose game at Philadelphia was delayed by rain.

The 11,467 hearty souls at Dolphins Stadium, which still showed the effects of Sunday’s NFL game, won’t remember much about this game between two clubs playing out the string.

The hometown Marlins, who yesterday kicked pitcher A.J. Burnett off the team and suspended slugger Miguel Cabrera for one game, don’t seem to care much themselves these days. Washington has just as little to play for right now, but at least manager Frank Robinson’s club is showing a little more heart.

“They see the finish line, but they don’t want this season to kind of slip away and finish under .500,” Robinson said. “They have pride, and they want to finish as well as they can.”

From the Nationals’ standpoint, last night’s four-run showing amounted to an offensive explosion, though they managed just one run during Marlins left-hander Jason Vargas’ seven innings.

They added three more in the eighth, two on Cristian Guzman’s double (his third hit of the night).

“For me, I want the season to start right now,” said Guzman, whose September surge has raised his average to .215. “But it’s almost over.”

With Carrasco on the mound, Washington needed only one run. The journeyman right-hander added another chapter to his remarkable comeback story, tossing six innings of two-hit, shutout ball.

That’s 17-2/3 consecutive scoreless innings for Carrasco over his last three starts. And remember, this is a guy who until this month had made one start in 557 career appearances.

“This is the first time my whole career I’m pitching the way I am,” he said. “It’s surprising for me and for a lot of people.”

In this most unlikely season, Carrasco (5-3) has somehow become the Nationals’ best starting pitcher down the stretch. Not that John Patterson, Esteban Loaiza and Livan Hernandez are pitching that poorly. Carrasco has just been that much better, as attested by an overall 1.73 ERA over 83-1/3 innings.

He has even managed to work his pitch count all the way up to 93 in a matter of weeks. That was good enough for six innings last night, paving the way for Washington’s bullpen to close things out.

“Another great effort on his part,” Robinson said. “I don’t know how he does it, to tell you the truth.”

Indeed, the pitching has been there all year. The offense has not, and while there are any number of players who contributed to that, it’s surprising that Brad Wilkerson has been among them. The fourth-year outfielder was coming off a 32-homer season in Montreal and after a hot start in April looked poised for a breakout year.

But Wilkerson has regressed as the season has played out and after last night’s 1-for-5 showing saw his surprisingly low numbers dip a little more. His batting average (.250), homers (11) and RBI (56) all are down from a year ago. His strikeout total (145) has almost matched his 152 from 2004.

“What happened to the guy I saw for three years?” Robinson said wonderingly. “People just don’t change like that overnight.”

Injuries are what happened. Wilkerson has been plagued by any number of ailments all year — to his right forearm, his left hand and both shoulders. He’s careful not to use them as an excuse for his performance, but he knows he’s not the same player he was a year ago.

“I got off to a good start [including hitting for the cycle in the second game of the season] and then had some bumps in the road. I’m disappointed in all that stuff,” Wilkerson said. “I’m looking forward to getting back and getting 100 percent for next year.”

But there’s no guarantee he’ll be back in a Nationals uniform in 2006. He’s already making $3.05 million this year and will earn some kind of raise in his second season of arbitration. Several clubs expressed interest in acquiring him earlier this year, and though general manager Jim Bowden wouldn’t part with him at the time, he could be tempted by the right offer this winter.

For his part, Wilkerson said he believes he’ll be back in 2006.

“I’ve been asked questions lately about myself, and I don’t know what’s going on,” he said. “I’m just going to prepare myself to play. I know I’ll be playing [somewhere].”

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