- The Washington Times - Monday, September 28, 2009

If the Washington Nationals are, as interim manager Jim Riggleman said again Sunday afternoon, not that far behind such playoff contenders as the Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves, then what is it that so often makes them pile up losses against those teams as last-place clubs are expected to do?

Is it the fact that the Nationals are last in the National League in pitching, which Riggleman cited as the biggest weakness on Sunday? Or is it the self-defeating brand of baseball they’ve played this year that has resulted in 139 errors - the most in baseball by more than a dozen - and countless other mental mistakes?

It could also be an offense, once one of the NL’s best, that has now been rendered almost incapable of breaking open a game.

Most likely, it’s a combination of all those things that has resulted in the major leagues’ most odious brand of baseball instead of a team on the rise, which so many of its principals feel it could be. Those factors all played a part in Washington’s 6-3 loss in 10 innings to the Braves on Sunday, the Nationals’ fifth loss in six games against Los Angeles and Atlanta.

After hitting back-to-back home runs off Derek Lowe in the first inning, Washington got just one more run and stranded leadoff hitter Willie Harris in scoring position three times. A costly if subtle mistake by Josh Willingham extended the Braves’ fourth, resulting in two runs. And closer Mike MacDougal’s erratic 10th inning ultimately put Atlanta over the top.

“That one got away from us,” Riggleman said. “Just a very tough loss.”

Since they capped a series win over the Chicago Cubs on Aug. 27, the Nationals are 6-21, and they lost for the 103rd time on Sunday, surpassing last season’s 102 losses and officially making this season the team’s worst in Washington with seven games to go.

The game started out well enough for the Nationals, with Ryan Zimmerman and Willingham blasting solo shots off Lowe. That lead went away, though, when Willingham winged a throw toward third base that he should have never made.

Brian McCann flied out to left-center with runners on first and second in the fourth, sending Willingham backpedaling to catch the ball after he called off Harris, who was charging from center. Willingham turned and fired toward third base, trying to throw out Martin Prado, but his throw was behind Zimmerman, allowing Prado to reach third and Chipper Jones to advance to second.

So instead of being an inning-ending double play, the Garret Anderson grounder that followed netted only one out, and then Yunel Escobar lashed a triple to left, scoring two runs.

“Josh, when he came in, he said, ‘I know I’ve got to throw that ball to second,’ ” Riggleman said. “But there’s four players involved in the play that can be yelling and communicating to get the ball to second base instead of throwing to third. We just didn’t get it done as a team, on that particular play and in the game.”

Starter Livan Hernandez allowed only one more run after that, exiting with the game tied 3-3 in the seventh. But a Nationals offense that hit Lowe uncharacteristically well went silent against the Braves’ bullpen, sending the game into the 10th, where it wriggled away from MacDougal.

He began the inning by walking Nate McLouth and hitting Prado. Then Jones hit a dribbler to the mound that left MacDougal no play, and pinch hitter Omar Infante split the game open with a two-run single to center.

Riggleman pinned MacDougal’s struggles on a hard fastball that was moving too much for the right-hander to properly locate it. The closer didn’t see it that way.

“The guy I walked, those pitches were close,” MacDougal said. “Chipper Jones found the perfect hole, and the same with Infante. He hit it off the end of the bat, and it just happened to be in the right spot.”

The “right spot,” for teams like the Braves and the Dodgers, seems to be the still-sizable gap between them and the Nationals that makes a series with Washington a boon to their playoff chances.

Jones, when asked about his team’s chances to make up a 2 1/2-game deficit in the wild-card race during the season’s final week - in which the Braves close with four home games against the Nationals - said as much.

“We feel good about our chances,” he said. “The Marlins are coming in a little down, obviously, and the Nationals are not playing their best baseball, so it’s right in front of us.”

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