Sunday, September 18, 2005

SAN DIEGO — It was a nightmare, the kind that causes you to leap out of bed in a cold sweat and spend the rest of the night eyes wide open, too scared to fall back to sleep.

The Washington Nationals were, without a doubt, headed to their fifth straight win, one that would have continued their frantic push to get back in the thick of the National League wild-card race.

All they needed were three outs. With a five-run lead in hand.

How that scenario morphed into a 8-5, 12-inning loss to the San Diego Padres late last night is almost impossible to believe. Suffice it to say, it was by far the most-crushing defeat the Nationals have suffered this season, and it was hard not to question manager Frank Robinson for putting his club in a position to allow this to happen.

Khalil Greene’s grand slam off closer Chad Cordero with two outs in the ninth was the defining blow — it improbably tied this game at 5 and sent it even later into the night. Ramon Hernandez won it with two outs in the bottom of the 12th, crushing Jon Rauch’s first pitch into the left-field bleachers for a three-run homer that sent the crowd of 37,707 at Petco Park into pandemonium.

It was the first time in 69 games that the Nationals (77-72) lost a game they once led by four runs, a streak that dated to June 1, 2004 and was the longest in baseball.

More importantly, it dropped them to 3 games back in the NL wild-card race with 13 to play.

Cordero will be tagged with the goat label for allowing Greene’s grand slam, but truth be told, he never should have been in position to blow his seventh save of the year (second in a week). That he even found his way into this game underscores how tightly Robinson managed the ninth inning, unwilling to allow three different relievers the chance to finish off a game that was all but won.

The events of that inning were almost incomprehensible. When it started, the Nationals led 5-0 and showed no signs of giving it away. Rookie reliever Jason Bergmann was on the mound, needing to record just three outs to make this one official.

But he surrendered a leadoff walk to Eric Young before striking out Ramon Hernandez, and that’s when Robinson decided to start managing as though the lead was one run instead of five. So in came left-hander Joey Eischen to face Brian Giles as Robinson played match-up.

Eischen did his job; he got Giles to hit a fly ball for the second out, and though he then gave up a single to pinch-hitter Xavier Nady, things still looked well in control.

Not in control enough for Robinson. He marched out to the mound and signaled for righty Travis Hughes to face Joe Randa. Result: Base hit, RBI, 5-1.

Suddenly, this was a save situation — the tying run was in the on-deck circle — so Robinson summoned Cordero. Who knows what was going through the 23-year-old’s mind at that moment, whether nerves got the best of him or he simply failed to execute, but he walked Mark Loretta to the load the bases and — gulp — bring Greene to the plate with a chance to tie the game with one swing.

Cordero threw his first pitch for a ball, then grooved his next and watched in horror as Greene sent it sailing over the left-field fence for the game-tying homer.

Just like that, all that preceded it was rendered moot.

Reliever-turned-starter Hector Carrasco gave the Nationals six brilliant innings of shutout baseball, only to see it go to waste. He was buoyed by a well-balanced offensive attack that produced single runs in five different innings.

Nick Johnson started things off with a second-inning homer to left. The opposite-field solo shot landed on the second-story balcony of the old Western Metal Supply Co. warehouse that has been incorporated into this new ballpark, a surprisingly powerful blast.

The Nationals made it 2-0 in the third, thanks in no small part to their newest hottest hitter, none other than Cristian Guzman. The light-hitting shortstop continued his recent upswing, beating out a slow roller down the first-base line, then successfully stealing second despite the fact that the Padres pitched out (catcher Ramon Hernandez’s throw sailed into center field).

The good luck continued for Guzman. He inexplicably bolted for third when Brad Wilkerson grounded right in front of him, yet eluded Joe Randa’s tag. That allowed him to score moments later on Jose Vidro’s sacrifice fly to center.

Guzman scored Washington’s third run of the night in the fifth, drawing a leadoff walk and then ultimately scoring on Jose Guillen’s single to left — a big hit for the slumping right fielder, who had been in a 7-for-46 slump. Preston Wilson’s 24th homer of the year — a sixth-inning solo shot to center — made it 4-0, and Johnson’s RBI single in the seventh made for the icing on the cake.

Or so everyone thought.

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