MIAMI, April 9 -- Ryan Church backed up to the left field wall in the bottom of the ninth Saturday night at Dolphins Stadium, watching the liner sail over his head. "Please don't disappear," he said to himself. At that moment, Florida Marlins catcher Paul Lo Duca put his finger up, pointing toward his teammates and the crowd beyond. "I thought I got it," Lo Duca said afterward.
Instead, the ball thumped off the top of the scoreboard "maybe four inches" from going out, Church said. Instead of the game-winning home run, it was the longest single of this young season. So in the top of the 10th, when Washington Nationals right fielder Jose Guillen stepped to the plate, he had a distinction to make.
Marlins catcher Paul Lo Duca confers with starting pitcher Brian Moehler after Moehler serves up two solo home runs and walked the next batter in the fifth inning.
(J. Pat Carter - AP)
"Lo Duca is Lo Duca," Guillen said. "Guillen is Guillen."
With that, Guillen won a game the Nationals were inches from losing. With two outs, he launched an 0-2 sinker from Marlins reliever Antonio Alfonseca over the center field fence to give Washington a 3-2 victory, not to mention turn potential demoralization into exhilaration, just like that.
"This is who we are," Church said. "You get the feeling we're blue-collar guys. We're going to battle. We're going to scrap. You don't want to meet us in a back alley."
The season is only five games old. The Nationals haven't even played a regular season game in their new home, RFK Stadium, and they seemed to be outmanned, position by position, by almost all their divisional rivals.
But in the season's first week, Manager Frank Robinson has seen enough from his team to say Saturday night did "a lot for our psyche, our mental state of mind."
Consider how this all went down. Nationals starter Livan Hernandez pitched seven strong innings, allowing just one unearned run on five hits. That's precisely the kind of performance Washington needs from its ace, particularly after Hernandez surprisingly allowed seven runs in an Opening Day loss.
Back-to-back homers in the fifth by Church and third baseman Vinny Castilla -- the first consecutive homers in Nationals history -- allowed Hernandez to depart with a 2-1 lead. When Luis Ayala pitched a 1-2-3 eighth, Robinson gave the ball to closer Chad Cordero.
Thursday, Cordero needed to retire the heart of the Phillies' order to secure an extra-inning victory, and he did. Saturday, he was faced with the same task: Marlins sluggers Miguel Cabrera, Carlos Delgado and Mike Lowell.
"That's my job," Cordero said, "to get the save."
Yet when Delgado ripped into a 1-0 fastball, Cordero's save sailed into the right field seats. After Lowell lined out, Lo Duca stepped up and sent his shot to left. As he trotted to first base, the crowd of 30,739 rose to its feet. Lo Duca anticipated the celebration -- and then the ball rocketed off the scoreboard. Stunned, Lo Duca had to stop at first.
"Guys react, guys show emotion," Marlins Manager Jack McKeon said. "Maybe next time, he won't raise his finger."
In the top of the 10th, Alfonseca retired the first two men on easy grounders, bringing Guillen to the plate. There has been perhaps no one in the Nationals' clubhouse who has been watched more closely during spring training and the early part of the season, both because of his potential and his history of misbehavior.
So far, there have been no missteps. Earlier Saturday, Guillen badly rolled his right ankle. "I was in serious pain," he said. He told the club's athletic trainer he wanted to stay in the game. "That doesn't go unnoticed by his teammates," Robinson said.
Neither did a go-ahead, two-run homer against the Phillies on Wednesday. Neither did a triple he hit with the Nationals down by a run to the Phillies on Thursday. Neither did the homer that came Saturday.
"All these things you hear in the offseason about his attitude, all this stuff?" Church said. "I mean, the guy has come to play in the clutch, in those big moments. He plays his butt off."
Guillen's shot put the Nationals up 3-2, and Cordero -- blown save behind him -- came out to finish it off. With one out, Marlins speedster Juan Pierre laced a hit down the right field line. It looked destined to be a triple -- until Guillen raced over and slid to cut it off. Pierre stopped at second. Damion Easley, the next hitter, lined out to left, a shot that easily would have scored Pierre from third.
"I like that play pretty much like the home run," Guillen said.
In truth, he likes nothing as much as being at the plate, the game in doubt. When the Nationals acquired him in a trade with Anaheim last November, that was his message: Play me, get me in those situations, and I'll deliver.
"I love it like I love playing every inning, every second," Guillen said. "This is what I do, and this is my job. It's been part of my controversy in my past is playing every day, because I know I can play every day. This is what I get paid for."