In the grand scheme of things, the Washington Nationals 9-3 loss to the Houston Astros Saturday night was just another loss -- No. 77 of the season -- in another losing season.  But the way they went about it was tough to watch.

Last night's game was one of the more demoralizing losses of the season. Not just for the runs against, or the poor fielding, or the lack of production (though all three were evident), but the fact that they were that lifeless against a team that hasn't won 50 games yet with less than 20 remaining to be played.  Make no mistake, the Astros are terrible.  But they reduced the Nats to an afterthought.

John Lannan failed to record nine outs for only the third time in his MLB career, giving up six runs -- four earned -- in the third inning to end the competitive portion of the game early, and the Nats fell to the Astros 9-3 before an announced crowd of 30,935 at Nats Park.

The Astros kept rapping single after single off Lannan in the third.  Then Michael Morse misplayed a double into a triple in the left field corner.  Two runs scored after Lannan himself threw a ball away trying to get the runner at the plate on a sacrifice bunt attempt.  A suicide squeeze attempt went for a clean single when no one could field the ball.  The comedy of errors seemed endless.

Yunesky Maya, the Cuban defector, was brought in to stop the bleeding and he managed to get out of that inning, but allowed two more runs in the fifth.

All the while, the futility on offense continued.  The Nationals were not without opportunity, collecting nine hits of their own -- though failing to draw a walk.  But as been the case all season long, they could not capitalize, going 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position.  Danny Espinosa, once considered for Rookie of the Year, continued his second half slide, going 0-for-4, striking out three more times and stranding five runners.

The Nationals are now just 26-39 since Davey Johnson took over as manager after Jim Riggleman quit in a huff over his expiring contract. Most rational folks would look at the discrepancy as coincidence, or perhaps regression to the mean after overachieving in the first half, fueled by a 13 out of 15 win streak. But there are going to be some that will claim it's causal, to illustrate their point that the game has passed Johnson by and use it as fuel for why the Nats should do a full search for a new manager next season.

Either way, one piece of evidence is incontrovertible: the Nats are crashing.

For the last three seasons, the Nats have made an annual September swoon, posting records for the month lower than their overall winning percentage.  At 3-5 so far, they are well on their way once again.  But over a longer period, it's even worse than that.  The Nationals have won just four of their last 17 games dating back to Aug. 22, when they were just two games below .500 and still having grandiose dreams of finishing strong.

The Nats second best record in their history since the move was their 73-win season in '07.  At one point in the not so distant past, it seemed a given the Nats would cruise past that number.  Now, they have but 18 games to win seven more to equal that mark, but only seven of those games are at home. 

Sunday afternoon we'll witness Stephen Strasburg's second start after his return from Tommy John surgery.  There are plenty of other bright prospects on the way.  Someday soon this team may have something to play for in September.  Right now, as the current players slog through the final games of this season, it's tough to remember that sometimes.

THE GOOD:  Michael Morse hit his 27th home run of the season, a solo shot in the sixth inning.  He went 2-for-4 with two runs scored.

THE BAD:  Yunesky Maya.  I just don't see it.

THE UGLY:  Espinosa.  He's now whiffed an astounding 148 times in 141 games, lowering his slash to .227/.316/.405 for the season.  Since the All-Star break he's hit .202/.284/.306 and struck out 64 times in 187 at bats.  He's swinging at everything hoping to make contact and not succeeding.

THE STATS:  Nine hits, no walks, 13 strikeouts.  1-for-9 w/RISP, eight LOB, no GIDP.  E: Morse (7), Lannan (2).

NEXT GAME:  Sunday at 1:05 pm against the Astros.  Stephen Strasburg (0-0, 0.00) faces Henry Sosa (2-3, 4.11).