NEW YORK -- You may want to clip out the NL East standings from this morning's paper. (Or, if you don't get a paper anymore, just print out the standings off your computer.) This is a significant day for the Nationals, who at 18-14 are four games over .500 for the first time in 4 1/2 years.
The last time they found themselves in this position: Sept. 18, 2005, when their record stood at 77-73. Technically, they were still alive in the NL wild-card race. Realistically, all hope of a miraculous postseason appearance at RFK Stadium had been wiped out the night before.
Astute fans of this franchise no doubt remember the events of Sept. 17, 2005, a late-night game in San Diego that to this day still resonates as the worst loss in Nationals history. Despite their late-summer swoon in the standings, the Nats still found themselves 2 1/2 games back in the wild-card race. They were re-energized by some brilliant pitching performances from the likes of John Patterson (who out-dueled Jake Peavy the night before) and Hector Carrasco (the journeyman reliever who was pressed into emergency starting duties because the club had no reliable No. 5 starter at that point).
On that fateful night at Petco Park, Carrasco tossed six shutout innings, lowering his ERA to 2.01. Homers by Nick Johnson and Preston Wilson helped the Nationals take a comfortable 5-0 lead into the bottom of the ninth. All they needed were three outs.
And then it all came crashing down.
Jason Bergmann, then a rookie right-hander with one month of big-league experience, began the inning for Washington. He walked Eric Young to lead things off but rebounded to strike out Ramon Hernandez. No worries, right?
Well, then Frank Robinson emerged from the dugout, walked toward the mound and signaled for left-hander Joey Eischen from the bullpen. Brian Giles was due up for the Padres, and Robinson was playing matchups in the ninth inning of a five-run game. From his booth next to the press box, San Diego GM Kevin Towers looked at one of the local writers, held his index finger to his head and pretended to pull the trigger. "Shoot me now," was the insinuation. The game was over. Why would Frank bother to drag this out?
Because it wasn't over, not by a long shot. Eischen got Giles to hit a fly ball for the second out, but he then gave up a single to Xavier Nady. Still, the Nats led by FIVE runs, with two on and two out in the ninth.
And then Robinson came out of the dugout again and signaled for right-hander Travis Hughes. The groans in the press box returned. What was Frank doing?
He was blowing the game, that's what he was doing. Hughes gave up an RBI single to Joe Randa. All of a sudden, it was 5-1, with two on. And since it was now a save situation, Chad Cordero was summoned to finish it off.
Cordero had been brilliant all season, but he had begun to show signs of cracking in September, perhaps from overuse, perhaps from the pressure. Whatever the case, Chief wasn't right that night. He immediately walked Mark Loretta to load the bases and bring Khalil Greene to the plate representing the tying run. Two pitches later, Greene sent Cordero's pitch into the left-field bleachers. I can still hear Mel Proctor's call on MASN: "Oh, no!"
The game proceeded for three more innings, until Jon Rauch served up a walk-off homer to Hernandez in the bottom of the 12th. The Nats' insurmountable 5-0 lead turned into a crushing 8-5 loss that all but eliminated them from the playoff race.
That night, inside a hushed clubhouse, Robinson apologized to his players for blowing the game. He took the blame, hoping the team could regroup the next day and keep its season intact.
Instead, the Nationals went back out the next afternoon and blew another late lead. The signature moments: With an 0-2 count in the ninth inning of a tie game, Eischen plunked Robert Fick (yes, Robert Fick) in the back. Moments later, Eischen threw wildly to first on Dave Roberts' sacrifice bunt attempt, bringing the winning run home and sending the Nats to yet another crushing loss.
With that defeat, the Nationals fell to 77-73. They returned home to RFK and lost their next two, then hovered around .500 the rest of the way before finishing 81-81.
This morning, for the first time since that fateful weekend in San Diego nearly five years ago, the Nats are four games over .500 again.