- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 28, 2006

If these are Frank Robinson’s final days in uniform, he’s not going down without a fight. The Washington Nationals won’t let that happen to their manager.

Even in an 8-7, 14-inning loss to the Philadelphia Phillies last night, the Nationals displayed the kind of gritty effort and hustle that has become the hallmark of this last-place club’s last month of the season.

Washington rallied to tie the game in the ninth, gave the lead back to the wild-card contending Phillies in the 10th and came back to tie again in the bottom of the inning before finally faltering in the 14th.

Jimmy Rollins was the eventual hero for Philadelphia, driving a two-out, two-run triple down the right-field line off reliever Jason Bergmann in the 14th inning for the game-winning hit. That capped a marathon ballgame before 21,809 at RFK Stadium, with a predominance of Phillies fans among the few who were still around when it ended.

The Nationals nearly stormed back one last time, loading the bases with no outs. They managed to push one run across on a sacrifice fly, but Brian Schneider grounded into a double play to end the game and dash any hopes of another dramatic rally.

Although they couldn’t pull out a dramatic victory last night, the Nationals have for weeks shown an unwillingness to roll over and play dead, particularly since Robinson held a 90-minute, closed-door meeting following an ugly loss in Colorado on Sept. 8.

Since that date, Washington has won 14 of its last 25, a source of pride for the players inside the clubhouse and for the 71-year-old in the manager’s office.

“I don’t remember any team that I’ve had in five years [with this franchise] that hasn’t played the 162-game schedule the way it’s supposed to be played, every ballgame,” Robinson said earlier in the day. “That’s outstanding.”

Even so, it may not be enough to save Robinson’s job. The Nationals’ front office, including general manager Jim Bowden and team president Stan Kasten, has been conspicuously silent about his future, refusing to field any questions about Robinson’s status or even a timetable for making a decision.

Time is running out, though. There are only four games left in the season, and Robinson has said publicly he would like an answer before Sunday’s finale against the New York Mets.

Though there’s been no definitive announcement from the club, few around RFK expect the manager to be asked back.

If Robinson doesn’t return, it won’t be because his club has lacked effort down the stretch of a losing season. The Nationals showed that again last night, staging a couple of furious late rallies before finally falling.

It began in the ninth with Washington trailing 5-4. Schneider singled off Phillies closer Tom Gordon. Bernie Castro then drew a five-pitch walk, putting both the tying and winning runs on base with no outs.

Felipe Lopez sacrificed the runners to second and third, forcing Philadelphia to walk Alfonso Soriano intentionally and load the bases for Ryan Zimmerman. Zimmerman, who earlier in the game tied the franchise rookie record with his 20th homer of the season, drew a run-scoring walk to make it 5-5 and send the game into extra innings.

The Nationals, though, gave the lead right back in the 10th when Abraham Nunez doubled to deep right-center off Chad Cordero, scoring Chris Coste and putting the Phillies back on top.

Never fear because Washington wasn’t done rallying. Nook Logan reached on a bunt single to open the 10th, took second on a ground out and then scored on Schneider’s single to right, tying the game yet again.

It wasn’t quite enough, though. Philadelphia got the last laugh in the 14th and in doing so remained one game behind the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL wild-card race.

The late-game heroics overshadowed just about everything that transpired over the evening’s first eight innings, though the only real notable event may have been Pedro Astacio’s early departure in his final start of the season.

The 36-year-old right-hander missed the first three months of the season with a strained forearm, came back to make 17 starts but then had to depart last night’s outing after only five innings when the same ailment acted up again.

It was perhaps a fitting end to the season for Astacio, who never really found his groove and wound up 5-5 with a 5.98 ERA in his 15th major league season. There’s no reason to believe he will be spending his 16th in Washington.

The larger question for the Nationals, of course, is whether Robinson will be back for his sixth. And if not, when the manager will find out.

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