- The Washington Times - Friday, September 19, 2008

If the New York Mets collapse down the stretch and fail to make the playoffs, they won’t be able to blame the Washington Nationals this time around.

A plucky Nationals squad that managed to dash the Mets’ October hopes one year ago simply didn’t have the firepower to keep up with its division rivals this season. Despite putting a brief scare into New York earlier this week with back-to-back wins, Washington was manhandled by the Mets the last two nights, culminating with Thursday’s 7-2 trouncing at Nationals Park in the season’s final matchup between the two clubs.

Thus, the Mets left town still in control of their fate in the tight National League pennant race, trailing the Phillies by a half-game in the East but leading the Brewers by 1 1/2 games for the wild card.

The Nationals? They were happy to see the Mets’ lineup move on its merry way, with the far less-imposing San Diego Padres taking New York’s place this weekend in a showdown between the NL’s two worst clubs.

“I’m glad we’re over with them so they can move on and play somebody else,” manager Manny Acta said. “It’s just very tough to keep those guys down.”

There are, practically speaking, two things left for the Nationals to play for in 2008. They want to avoid finishing with the majors’ worst record - even though that would ensure the No. 1 pick in June’s draft, likely San Diego State right-hander Stephen Strasburg - and they want to avoid finishing with 100 losses.

To do that, they will need to go 5-4 down the stretch against the Padres, Florida Marlins and Phillies (who still figure to be playing meaningful games over the season’s final weekend).

Washington didn’t help its cause Thursday, falling behind in the first and quickly getting buried by a Mets offense that totaled 16 runs in the final two games of the series. One of the biggest contributors Thursday: Brian Schneider, the ex-Nationals catcher who clubbed a pair of solo homers against his former team.

Tim Redding took the brunt of the overall punishment, allowing five runs in a three-inning start, though the right-hander might have wondered how the outing would have differed had center fielder Lastings Milledge not botched a first-inning play that set the tone for the entire evening.

After Jose Reyes led off the game with a double down the left-field line, Daniel Murphy sent a soft liner into shallow center. Milledge came charging in trying to make the catch, but he came up short. Worse, he allowed the ball to skip right past him and roll nearly all the way to the wall.

“I thought I had a shot, but I didn’t,” Milledge said. “I let up, and it kind of ate me up.”

By the time Milledge retrieved it, Reyes had scored, Murphy was cruising into third base and Redding had a look of astonishment on his face. This is the pitcher, after all, who essentially called Milledge out for a costly misplay earlier this summer.

In his first full season as a center fielder, Milledge has experienced his ups and downs. There are those within the organization who believe he’s ultimately better suited to play a corner position, but Acta has had no intention of making that move in-season.

“We’re very happy with all the progress he has made throughout the year,” the manager said. “No one said here early or right now that he is Carlos Beltran or Andruw Jones. We are very happy with the progress that he has made.”

Milledge’s error Thursday night didn’t affect the outcome of the game. The Mets made sure of that, scoring at least one run in each of the evening’s first five innings.

Redding (10-10) departed after the third, his ERA having climbed to 4.67. Starter-turned-reliever Jason Bergmann didn’t fare any better, serving up Schneider’s second solo homer of the game on his first pitch in the fourth inning.

“These guys are a momentum team,” Redding said. “Once they get something going for them, they just feed off it top to bottom. … Personally, I’d rather face Philly than the Mets right now. The Mets are hot.”

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