- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 4, 2005

There’s not much about the Washington Nationals these days that says they still believe they are in a pennant race.

The players mope around a silent clubhouse, complaining about the new rules instituted by their manager. The manager acknowledges the division title is no longer in reach and openly wonders how his team has lost every shred of its chemistry.

Even when their ace pitcher pumps in yet another spectacular performance, they waste it.

So when the Nationals still found a way to overcome all of that and pull off a 5-4, 12-inning win over the Philadelphia Phillies last night, those left from a crowd of 30,561 at RFK Stadium could only scratch their heads in disbelief, trying to figure out just where this team is ultimately headed.

It’s hard to tell. On a night they got a 72/3-inning masterpiece from John Patterson, only to see it go to waste when Chad Cordero blew a three-run lead in the ninth on back-to-back homers, the Nationals somehow managed to come back and win it on Preston Wilson’s RBI single in the 12th.

And if this game had gone the other way?

“You almost could have pulled the plug on the life support,” manager Frank Robinson said. “It probably would have been pretty close to the season, really.”

Instead, Washington managed to pull within three games of the Phillies in the NL wild-card race and move ahead of the fourth-place New York Mets for the first time in 10 days.

“We’re still right there,” said Jose Guillen, who scored the winning run. “What else can you ask for?”

Guillen, who sat on the bench for the game’s first seven innings, jumpstarted the winning rally by drawing a one-out walk off Phillies reliever Aquilino Lopez, then advancing to second on Todd Pratt’s passed ball. Wilson followed by lofting a bloop single just past first base, bringing Guillen around from second to score the winning run and bail out Cordero.

“He’s picked us up all year,” Wilson said of the 23-year-old closer. “It was time for us to pick him up for a change.”

Whether Washington (70-66) capitalizes on all its good fortune and comes back today with a positive effort remains to be seen. Truth be told, there has been little reason to believe Robinson’s club will.

The manager himself admitted yesterday for the first time that the division title is no longer in his club’s reach, though the wild-card is still attainable.

Washington’s players appear to be even less optimistic. They trudged around a quiet clubhouse yesterday afternoon — the result of Robinson’s new rules — showing few signs of life.

Before last night’s game, five uniformed personnel sat in front of the clubhouse big-screen television watching footage of Phillies pitcher Eude Brito’s last start. Unfortunately, the group watching included three pitchers, one coach and a position player on the disabled list. Not one member of last night’s starting lineup was present.

There may be problems with the Nationals’ in-game focus, as well. Friday night, with the Nationals trailing 7-1, TV cameras caught infielder Carlos Baerga and pitchers Esteban Loaiza and Livan Hernandez yukking it up on the dugout railing. Again, not the kind of focus Robinson is looking for from his players in the middle of a pennant race.

Then there’s the mysterious case of Guillen, who was out of Washington’s lineup for the second-straight night for no clear-cut reason. Is the right fielder too banged up to play, is he making a statement about Robinson’s new rules or is he being punished by his manager? None of the involved parties were saying yesterday.

There is no question that the good vibes and team-first attitude that were a staple of the Nationals’ clubhouse earlier this season had all but vanished until last night. Robinson said he’s never seen this happen to a club that “has a chance to play for something” and questioned his players’ frame of mind.

Then that beleaguered group went out and won a game in dramatic fashion.

“I really think we kind of answered [the questions] tonight,” Robinson said. “They could have given up, could have thrown in the towel after the ninth inning. But they didn’t. We won. It wasn’t pretty, but we won.”

For that, Robinson can thank Patterson, who hasn’t been fazed by anything going on around him. Pitching four days after stomach cramps forced him to leave his last start in the third inning, the right-hander looked like his old self over 72/3 fabulous innings.

Patterson finally gave way to the bullpen with two outs and two on in the eighth, departing to a standing ovation. Left-hander Joey Eischen then created even more of a jam by walking Chase Utley to load the bases before striking out Bobby Abreu on three pitches — the last an appealed check swing — to end the inning.

Washington then added two insurance runs in the bottom of the eighth, which should have made life easier for Cordero to record his franchise-record 44th save.

Nothing ever comes easy for this team, though. Cordero entered with a three-run lead, then gave it all back on back-to-back home runs by Ryan Howard and David Bell. As the Phillies fans among the RFK crowd roared with approval, a stunned Cordero stood on the mound, having just blown his fifth save in 48 tries.

Moments later, Wilson struck out with the winning run on third base, sending the game into extra innings and adding yet another strange chapter to a strange season of baseball in Washington.

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