Phillies Look to Bury Nationals in Wild-Card Race

The final month of the season features primarily showdowns within the division. The Phillies have a slim half-game lead over Houston in the Wild Card Standings, while the Washington Nationals trail the Phils by three games. A weekend series in Washington is huge for both teams.

Technically speaking, the Nationals' season won't be over by the end of this week. Realistically speaking, it very well could be.

Washington faced a daunting test coming into this week: four games at NL East-leading Atlanta, followed by three games at home against the wild-card-leading Phillies. The Nationals managed a split in Atlanta and came within a whisker of taking three out of four games from the Braves. For a Nationals team teetering on the brink of collapse coming into the week, this week's stretch of games could have been a last gasp. Of course, for the optimists, it was also an opportunity for the Nationals to prove themselves.

Manager Frank Robinson prefers not to put too much emphasis on one week's worth of games. He points out that Washington' has a stretch of 17 games against division opponents.

"That could be the season right there," Robinson said. "You have to battle, battle, battle and try to pick up ground on the people in front of you."

Former Phillie Marlon Byrd, who was recently recalled from Triple-A New Orleans, said he and Nationals manager Frank Robinson have smoothed things over since his rocky departure a month ago.

Upon learning he was being sent down to the minors on July 31, Byrd left without saying a word to Robinson, which prompted the manager to remark that "he had an attitude when he came in, he had an attitude while he was here and he had an attitude when he left."

Byrd insisted he and Robinson are back on the same page. "We're clear," he said. "I had to explain that I was disappointed in myself. They got a read on me that I was very angry and had the attitude. I was angry with myself. I wasn't mad at anyone else. I understood the move and it made sense. It wasn't like I was hitting .300 and I was odd-man-out. I wasn't getting the job done."

After their split with Atlanta, the Nationals find themselves seven games out in the National League East and three games behind the Phillies for the National League Wild Card. The Nationals are optimistic because of the remaining 14 games on their stretch against NL East teams, the next 10 games are at RFK Stadium where they are 36-26 this season. And of the remaining 28 games on their schedule, the Nats play 19 home games.

Robinson hopes to see the good side of his ball club down the stretch, but admits that they've been somewhat of a Jekyl and Hyde team for most of the season.

"I just can't figure this team out. The more a pitcher has struggled, or the higher his ERA is, the worse we do with him."

Meanwhile, the Nationals club that beat the St. Louis Cardinals 4-1 Friday night looked like a team capable of winning the NL wild card, not the one that has struggled so mightily for the last month and a half.

They played an aggressive brand of baseball, going after Cardinals starter Jeff Suppan and showing hustle on the bases to earn one of their most satisfying victories in some time.

Unfortunately for Washington, they couldn't follow up the win with another good performance, which has been their forte since mid-July. This team has won back-to-back games only twice since the All-Star break, and they could desperately use a nice little win streak during their ten game homestand.

"They came out there with a lot of energy tonight," manager Frank Robinson said after Friday's game. "It's just too bad that you can't sustain that and get them to understand that you have to take everybody the same way. ... I'd just like for us to get on a roll with this type of approach with this type of energy, and we'll take our chances."

There's little question now who is the ace of the Nationals. His name is John Patterson, and he's doing everything a club could ask for from its number one starting pitcher.

Patterson isn't just winning games. He's winning games his club desperately needs to win, just as he did last week in a 5-3 triumph over the Cincinnati Reds.

After losing the previous night to fall into a fourth-place tie for the NL wild-card, the Nationals had no margin for error. Patterson made sure that wasn't an issue - he gave up three runs in 8 1/3 innings, but two of those came in the ninth with the game already essentially locked up.

Most impressive was Patterson's performance in the seventh, when with Washington clinging to a 2-1 lead he loaded the bases with no outs and proceeded to pitch his way out of it.

"Anytime you get in a situation like that, you see what somebody's made of, how much heart they have," catcher Brian Schneider said. "It's not easy to do that when you look behind you and you've got bases loaded, nobody out. It shows a lot for someone to do that."

The Phillies will face Patterson (8-4, 2.50) on Sunday, sending rookie Robinson Tejeda (4-3, 3.19) to the mound to face Patterson.

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