SAN FRANCISCO, May 7 -- Here is why the Washington Nationals just might have some staying power: On a day when their lineup looked like something cobbled together for a softball game on the Mall, their best hitter rose off the bench and hit a feeble ground ball to second base.
That, the key play in the Nationals' dramatic 11-8 victory over the San Francisco Giants? Believe it.
Nationals' Ryan Church watches his two-out, three-run double off Giants reliever Jim Brower in the ninth inning, when Washington scored four runs.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez -- AP)
"It changed the ballgame," Manager Frank Robinson said.
There were so many changes to this ballgame, it could take the better part of a Pacific sunset to get to them all. Yes, there was the explosive, seven-run fourth, in which the Nationals overcame a 4-0 deficit, the first indication of their scrappiness. Indeed, there was solid relief work by Gary Majewski, Luis Ayala and Chad Cordero, bailing out starter John Patterson and long reliever Zach Day, neither effective. And, of course, the big blow of the day -- the one most deserving of headlines and highlights -- was Ryan Church's two-out, bases-loaded double in the ninth, the one that completed the Nationals' comeback in a game they had no business winning.
But there are subtle reasons the Nationals are now four games over .500 for the first time since April 17, why they have won four of five to start a West Coast swing. When Jose Guillen came to the plate in the top of the ninth, the Nationals trailed 8-7. Pinch hitter Jeffrey Hammonds had walked, and Guillen -- who began the day under medication to reduce swelling in his bruised left elbow -- took one big swing, an effort to give the Nationals the lead in an instant.
Yet on the next pitch, Giants reliever Jeremy Accardo -- one of seven hurlers San Francisco Manager Felipe Alou trotted out against the suddenly slugging Nationals -- unleashed a wild pitch, Hammonds took second. Guillen had two strikes on him. With no one out, there was a runner in scoring position. He changed his approach. No more home run cut.
"I'm a winner," Guillen said, "and a team player."
So he tapped the next pitch to second, allowing Hammonds to take third, a professional move by a professional hitter. The next man up, Brad Wilkerson, lofted a sacrifice fly to left, and Hammonds scored the tying run. Check the box score, and you won't see those elements among the evidence of perhaps the Nationals' most stirring victory of the season. But every single man in the clubhouse understands it.
"I don't know if too many hitters would've done that, not of his stature," Robinson said. "I tell you: He is slowly becoming the leader of this ballclub. This ballclub is taking on his attitude, really. Hard-nosed, let's go out and play nine innings of baseball, and play it hard."
A remarkable statement, considering the questions that preceded Guillen's arrival in Washington, questions about attitude and temperament. Exactly none of them has surfaced here. "So far," Guillen said, "so good."
Guillen wasn't even supposed to play Saturday, given that he had been hit on the left elbow by a pitch Friday night and had a sizable bruise. Neither Guillen nor second baseman Jose Vidro -- the team's Nos. 3 and 4 hitters -- appeared in the original lineup, giving a decided edge to Giants ace Jason Schmidt.
So when Patterson allowed Moises Alou's grand slam in the third for a 4-0 Giants lead, there was little reason to believe the Nationals would be a factor. Yet Schmidt wasn't sharp, either, and the first three Nationals reached base in the fourth. Patterson was due up.
The call went out: Guillen? Guillen? He had been napping almost all morning, had taken a couple of swings in the batting cage, but arrived in the dugout without his belt or his batting gloves.
"I was not expecting it at all," he said.
He delivered anyway, a two-run single that sparked the inning. Then, he stayed in the game.
"How does that not fire you up?" said second baseman Jamey Carroll, who had three hits filling in for Vidro.
It did, and set up the ninth, when the Nationals tore through the Giants' ragged bullpen. After Hammonds scored the tying run, Carroll started the next rally with a single, and Nick Johnson and Vinny Castilla followed with walks, loading the bases for Church. The bases-clearing double capped his first career four-hit day, and had him saying afterward that other teams "definitely" should begin taking the Nationals seriously.
Robinson? Well, he's not so sure. His team has shown him something, though, these first few weeks. Scrappy, plucky, determined -- take your pick. Right now, Guillen and the Nationals fit them all.
"Look at us," Robinson said. "We're a bunch of misfits, trouble-makers. We come from all over. Can't do much. We're just going to do the best we can, and sometimes, they might throw us a crumb, and we'll win a ballgame. We'll appreciate that, and continue to take that approach, and hope we get enough crumbs thrown our way."