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Nats' 3-Run Rally in 9th Tops Braves

Nationals 4, Braves 3

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 13, 2005; Page D01

ATLANTA, April 12 -- By the time the Washington Nationals reached the ninth inning Tuesday night, there was nothing to indicate they would -- or could -- come back. They had played 73 innings, and scored more than one run just four times. They had runners in scoring position with two outs on 24 occasions, and collected precisely one hit, good for an .042 average. And with Atlanta Braves closer Dan Kolb on the mound, they were finished, ready to drop their fourth game in five outings.

And then -- a walk. Four little missed pitches to second baseman Jose Vidro, and some hope.

Brian Schneider hits a two-run double to put the Nationals ahead of the Braves in the ninth inning. Closer Chad Cordero preserves the 4-3 victory. (John Amis - AP)

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"After he went and walked the first guy," Nationals catcher Brian Schneider said, "you saw a total different change in attitude in the dugout."

And by the end of the night, the Nationals' season-opening nine-game road trip had a completely different tenor than it did only an hour before. Schneider capped an improbable three-run rally against Kolb with a two-out, two-run double, lifting the Nationals' impossibly stagnant offense to a 4-3 victory over the Braves.

The hit erased a stellar outing by Braves starter Tim Hudson, who became the fourth pitcher in five days to overwhelm the Nationals, tossing eight innings of one-run ball. It erased the sting of Monday night's 11-2 loss to Atlanta, a game that seemed to show the disparity between the clubs. And it erased, at least temporarily, all the staggering statistics that accompany the Nationals' offense, which came into the game having scored fewer runs than all but one major league team.

With that, the Nationals -- the only major league club that has yet to play a home game -- pulled back to .500, and is a Wednesday afternoon win from returning for Washington's first regular season game since 1971 with a winning record.

"It's a confidence booster any time we win," Manager Frank Robinson said. "But we're playing three of the toughest ballclubs in this division starting out. So far, we've held our own. If we go out there and win a ballgame tomorrow, and go home over .500, that's a darn good road trip to start the season. That's our goal."

For almost the entire evening, it seemed that goal would be unattainable. Hudson joined Florida's Dontrelle Willis and Josh Beckett and Atlanta's Mike Hampton in a group of elite starters who have mowed through the Nationals in the last six days. Hudson, acquired in the offseason from Oakland, showed he belonged in Atlanta's pitching-rich tradition, striking out six and walking none, allowing only a leadoff homer to Vidro in the fourth.

For five innings, though, Nationals starter Esteban Loaiza matched him. But then, the Braves came up with something that had become an indecipherable foreign phrase to the Nationals: a two-run double. This one came off the bat of Chipper Jones in the sixth, and thus, when Loaiza departed after seven innings, the Nationals trailed 3-1. It appeared they would be headed for another punchless loss.

During these offensive struggles, Robinson has complained that his players aren't having good at-bats, that they're swinging at bad pitches. So when Vidro walked against Kolb -- just the Nationals' fourth leadoff walk of the season -- there was minimal encouragement. But Jose Guillen followed with a single, and the first semblance of a rally the Nationals had seen in days -- they hadn't scored more than one run in 31 straight innings -- was on.

"We got some guys, finally, on base with less than two outs," left fielder Brad Wilkerson said. "It takes a lot of pressure off you when you get some guys on base with less than two outs."

Kolb, who had three saves in three previous opportunities, then walked Nick Johnson, loading the bases.

"I didn't have my confidence," Kolb said, "and I didn't have my fastball."

He recovered, however, to get Ryan Church to bounce to third, a fielder's choice in which Jones nailed Vidro at the plate. Even when Cristian Guzman lofted a sacrifice fly to center to cut the deficit to 3-2, there was just one out to get, and little reason for hope. Except, perhaps, what Robinson felt. "These guys find a way in the close ballgames," he said.

So they did, their third one-run win. Schneider's double was a rocket, a 1-1 fastball at the knees that he drove to right-center. The development was perhaps so surprising that just after the Nationals took the field for the bottom of the ninth, the skies opened. The Nationals had to wait out a 31-minute rain delay for closer Chad Cordero to nail down the first save in club history.

But when Cordero got Brian Jordan to bounce into a game-ending fielder's choice, there it was, a win that seemed destined to be a loss.

"We're struggling a little bit at the plate right now," Wilkerson said, "but we've shown that we're not going to give up, and we're going to fight till the end. That was a great example tonight."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company