National League East too Close to Call

By Carla Peay
Updated: August 19, 2005

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Washington Nationals began their longest road trip of the season, 13 games, with one of their toughest opponents, the resurgent Houston Astros, who began the series leading the National League wild card race. After winning game one in their usual one-run fashion by a score of 6-5, they went on to drop the final two games of that series.

Then came a weekend series against the Colorado Rockies, during which the Nationals bats came to life. Against the league’s worst team, and in the mile high city of Denver, where the altitude produces astounding offensive numbers, the Nationals took full advantage. During the three-game sweep of the Rockies, the normally anemic Nationals offense scored 21 runs on 30 hits.

With their spirits – and finally their offense – lifted to new heights, the Nationals left Colorado for Philadelphia to begin a four game series that would go a long way toward determining this team’s playoff chances. The Nationals and Philles seem to flip flop positions in the standings almost daily, each trailing Houston in the wild card, and the Braves for the lead in the National League East.

The Nationals took the series opener 6-3 on Monday night, and for a moment, it seemed as though the team had brought a little of the Coors Field magic with them. Tuesday night’s contest was rained out. By the time Wednesday rolled around, it seemed as though the mile high magic had been swept away by the rain, as the one-run wonders lost a close one again by a score of 4-3.

Tuesday’s postponement was made up on Thursday as part of a day-night doubleheader, and once the Nationals had dropped the day game by one run yet again by the score of 2-1, the offensive woes seemed to have returned.

“We just can’t get anybody to stick their nose in there and get a tough base hit on a consistent basis or get that big fly ball. Anytime we get people in scoring position, it’s important that we get someone home”, said Nationals manager Frank Robinson.

“We had opportunities, we just weren’t able to capitalize on them”, said catcher Gary Bennett. “One day, you go out there and you feel great. The next day, it’s like you’ve never played the game before”, he added.

“All the games we were winning in the first half, we’re losing right now, by one run. If we’re going to make a run, we’re going to have to start winning those games again”, said third baseman Vinny Castilla.

The series finale on Thursday night began with the Philles jumping out to a four run lead, and the Nationals seemed destined to lose yet another series to a division rival. But in the top of the fifth inning, those bats Frank Robinson once called ‘missing in action’ sprang to life once again, as the Nationals posted 3 runs.

Singles by third baseman Carlos Baerga and shortstop Jamey Carroll started the rally, and both scored on a double by second baseman Jose Vidro. Vidro, who went 3-4 on the night, scored on a double by first baseman Nick Johnson. Once again, the Nationals trailed by one run.

Then in the eighth inning, the Nationals jumped out to a 5-4 lead as right fielder Jose Guillen doubled, and scored on a single by center fielder Preston Wilson. Wilson then scored on a single by Baerga. Lights-out closer Chad “Chief” Cordero came on in the bottom of the eighth inning and retired the final two batters on two pitches, then retired the side in order in the ninth to record his league leading 39th save of the season.

“You never know about this club. Just when it looks like it’s down and out, it sticks its head up and does some good things. We got the timely hits tonight and every one of them was needed. If we can do that more often, we’re going to win our share of games but if we don’t, we’re going to lose games”, said Robinson. He also praised the efforts of his bullpen, called into action early after the departure of starter Ryan Drese, who went just four innings.

“Let’s not overlook what a great job the bullpen did. They did a tremendous job today and gave us an opportunity to win two ballgames. They shut them (the Phillies) down. Our bullpen has given us great results this year”, added Robinson. Relievers John Halama, Luis Ayala, who picked up the win, and Mike Stanton all pitched well in relief of Drese before yielding to Cordero, who came in and slammed the door in his usual fashion.

“We just had to go out there and do what we’re supposed to do. We can’t worry about what’s happening with other games. We just have to stay focused and go out there and play the way we can. It was a good game by everybody”, said a smiling Cordero.

The final stop on the road trip is a three game series with the New York Mets before the Nationals return home to the friendly confines of RFK. Going into the weekend series, the Nationals remain in 3rd place in the National League East, 5 games behind the Braves and ½ game behind the Phillies.

In the wildcard race, both the Astros and Phillies are tied for the lead, with the Nationals just ½ game out. With 121 in the books, and 41 left to play, it’s still a race that’s too close to call.