WASHINGTON -- Standing near the home dugout at RFK Stadium an hour before Tuesday night's game against the sub-.500 Cincinnati Reds, Washington Nationals general manager Jim Bowden talked about the importance of the next three weeks.
"Your season's going to be defined in that box," Bowden said.
If so, the Nationals began the key stretch in ominous fashion. Cincinnati starter Luke Hudson limited Washington to four hits over a career-best seven innings, and the Reds batted around in a four-run third against a hurting Tony Armas Jr. to beat the Nationals 6-2.
There was more bad news for the Nationals: Armas (7-7) left after that big third inning with a sore pitching shoulder, fellow starter Ryan Drese headed to the disabled list with an injured throwing shoulder, and outfielder Brad Wilkerson sat out the game with sinusitis.
"Each game that we're playing here now we have to try to win that ballgame," manager Frank Robinson said, "and we just didn't give ourselves a fair shake tonight."
The Reds improved to 4-0 against the Nationals -- even though Nos. 3 and 4 hitters Ken Griffey Jr. and Adam Dunn were a combined 1-for-10 with five strikeouts.
Hudson (5-6), who had never lasted beyond the sixth inning in 21 previous starts, gave up solo homers to Vinny Castilla in the second and Jose Guillen in the fourth. For Guillen, it was his 22nd homer but only No. 2 at RFK Stadium.
Otherwise, Hudson encountered trouble only in the fifth, when he hit Castilla and Cristian Guzman reached on a bunt single with none out. Jamey Carroll pinch hit in the pitcher's slot and, with the hit-and-run on, laced a first-pitch fastball just foul.
Robinson wanted to switch to a bunt on the second pitch, but he said that signal wasn't relayed properly. So Carroll swung and missed on an outside pitch, and Castilla was caught stealing at third.
"We ran ourselves out of the inning," Washington's Jose Vidro said.
Carroll eventually struck out, as did Ryan Church. That began a stretch in which the last 14 Nationals batters were retired, eight by Hudson.
"We all know he's capable of having outstanding ballgames," Reds manager Jerry Narron said of his starter. "I was happy after the ball that Guillen hit, because that was a bomb. Lots of times that'd scare a guy out of the zone."
Brian Shackelford pitched the eighth, and David Weathers finished the Reds' fourth victory in their past five games.
It was a return to the sluggish offense that Washington had exhibited before the 13-game trip that ended Sunday. The Nationals averaged 5.1 runs and went 7-6 on the trip to stay in the thick of the NL wild-card race.
"The offense didn't show up tonight," Robinson said.
Hudson took advantage, and now has earned the win in four of his past five starts. That comes on the heels of a stretch in which he lost five consecutive decisions.
"It's just a matter of getting to know yourself," he said. "The more you pitch the more you get to know your body."
The Reds opened the third against Armas with four consecutive hits, starting with Edwin Encarnacion's fifth homer, tying the game at 1-1. By now, Armas' fastball was down in the low 80s, and Hudson singled, Felipe Lopez doubled, and both came home on Rich Aurilia's single. After Armas retired Griffey and Dunn, he walked Sean Casey, and gave up an RBI double to Austin Kearns.
After Guillen's homer made it 4-2, the Nationals' bullpen kept the game tight until Mike Stanton gave up RBI doubles in the eighth to LaRue and Encarnacion, drawing boos from many in the crowd of 35,656.
"One foot in last place, one foot in fourth place," Robinson said. "You just can't keep losing ground now and expect to jump over all these ballclubs."
Drese's roster spot will go to RHP Travis Hughes, who's being recalled from Triple-A New Orleans. ... The Reds began a 13-game trip, their longest since June 1989. ... Reds 3B Encarnacion made nice plays on grounders by Preston Wilson in the second and Brian Schneider in the fourth. ... Armas reached 500 career strikeouts by fanning Dunn for the last out of the first inning. ... Armas had been 5-0 with a 2.72 ERA at home.