Thursday, August 11, 2005

Driftin' too far from shore

Another series, another series loss. The Nats have now lost five out of their last six games and, by my count, eight out of nine series.

This rubber match was never in much doubt. The Houston Astros jumped ahead in the first on a Lance Berkman double, extended the lead to three in the bottom of the third, and put the game away in the fifth on a Brad Ausmus bases-clearing double. Yet more shoddy defense, this time by Vinny Castilla at third base, set up the Astros for the killing blow. In the meantime, lefty Andy Pettitte was in complete command. The Nats made it seem somewhat respectable on the strength of late homers by Preston Wilson and the bionic man, Jose Guillen, but the effect was entirely cosmetic.

As a consequence, the Nats now find themselves three games out of a playoff spot. This is the drip-drip-drip in the National League wild card race that will eventually do them in; they lost their lead rapidly, but have stayed within a couple of games for the last week or so. Now, though, the deficit is three games. Hopefully, the gap will not grow any larger (or, indeed, will shrink by a game or so) while the Nats spend time in Denver. Seven engagements, however, follow in New York and Philadelphia. It's entirely possible the Nats could end the road trip trailing the Astros by five or six games.

Observing the remaining schedule, we quickly see that the Astros are both the pacesetters and the only team beyond our theoretical grasp. The other NL East teams (except the Braves, who are increasingly irrelevant to the discussion), while perhaps or probably all better than the Nats, depending on the team, are also all directly in the Nats' sights on the schedule. If, for whatever reason, the Nats get hot after this road trip---and, as Boz pointed out at the All-Star break, the Nats play an abundance of late home games---they can make up ground against the Phillies and Marlins, who are likely to be ahead of the Nats later this month, as well as against the Mets, who very well might be. I'm not saying the Nats would do so; I'm just saying they could.

The Astros, by virtue of participating in a separate division, are a different matter. The Nats are done with Houston and must now rely primarily on the kindness of the rest of the NL Central. Washington's playoff chances have probably been dead as a practical matter for at least a week now, but losing two-of-three in Houston (or getting swept at home by San Diego!) did not feed the remaining hope.

Simply put, the Nats are drifting too far from the playoff shore.


All of this, of course, is not to be dour but to be realistic about matters. June was an incredibly fun ride, and in a sense it's gratifying to be so frustrated at the team over the past five weeks or so. It means the team has been relevant in the standings, which is probably more than we bargained for back in the days of the dry erase board.

On the other hand, there is something empty about watching veterans flail and flounder. It's frustrating and, to me at least, it seems wasteful. If this isn't the "next Washington Nationals playoff team," then the playing time devoted to Vinny Castilla or Preston Wilson (or, yes, Cristian Guzman) isn't worth much. If this team is not headed for the postseason, then we're reaching the point where some guys are becoming too irrelevant for the franchise's good; at a certain point, it's time to try out (or re-insert) guys who could form a part of the future, who could actually be around for "the next Washington Nationals playoff team."

Are we at that point? I don't know, but anything less than success the rest of this road trip would get us closer to it. Houston's not going to lay down for us, and there's no reason gold star that goes to the wild card runner-up.


From tonight's Rocket Bill notes:

---> It took one game for Frank Robinson to determine that Brandon Watson, he of the winning smile, is out of his depth against the lefties:

Manager Frank Robinson decided to start Preston Wilson in left field over Brandon Watson on Thursday because Robinson didn't like the way Watson handled left-handed pitching on the previous night against the Astros. Watson had five at-bats against them and was hitless, but did drive in a run in the third inning with a groundout off Wandy Rodriguez. [. . .]

"The kid (Watson) didn't do real good last night against the left-hander, and I didn't want him to get caught up in this thing so quickly in a negative way," Robinson said.

Seeing as the Nats were squaring off against a good lefty on a hot streak, tonight would indeed seem like the night to protect Watson against the platoon disadvantage, if necessary. I suppose Robinson's decision paid off, as righties Wilson and Guillen both homered (though only Wilson homered off the lefty).

---> Gary Bennett played again tonight, as Robinson rested Brian Schneider's shoulder. Although it seems (to me, at least) that Bennett has played a lot this season---and not just recently, when Schneider missed five straight games---Bennett's pace of 170 at-bats was fairly well within the range of the action the normal NL back-up catcher saw in 2004.

---> Matt Cepicky, he of the wildly vascillating attitude, cleared waivers and accepted more opportunities to sit at Cafe du Monde. Good choice, Mattie.

---> Sad Stat of the Night from Rocket Bill: The Nats' bullpen has dropped 11 straight decisions. Luis Ayala's quest for 15 wins will come up well short, it would appear.

So you want Frank to start playing rookies. Ha, I say! Ha!

Last year when the Expos were much further out of contention than the Nats will be, Frank still chose to play veterans, or guys who played all year long, rather than call-ups. You're not going to see that lineup with Harris and Church and Godwin, etc. in late Sept. Sorry.
This could happen. [/kid from "Magnolia."]

Okay, it can't. And it won't---especially since the now-pointless veterans were acquired by Jim Dandy.

But I'd like it to happen just the same. :-)
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