Zach Day couldn't win the game at that moment, with runners on first and second and nobody out in the first inning. But he sure as heck could have lost it, and given his recent history against the Atlanta Braves -- allowing seven runs in his last appearance, burdened with a 10.93 ERA against them -- there was little reason to believe he would battle through.
"He was one hit in the first inning," Washington Nationals Manager Frank Robinson said, "from being out of the ballgame."
Nationals closer Chad Cordero gets pumped after securing the save against the Braves and ending the team's two-game losing skid.
(Joel Richardson -- The Washington Post)
Funny thing, though. That hit never came. Day didn't have his best stuff last night -- "It wasn't pretty," Robinson said -- but it didn't matter. He got Atlanta third baseman Chipper Jones to bounce into a double play in the first, worked out of that jam, and ended up allowing just three singles over seven scoreless innings to lead the Nationals to a 2-0 victory in front of 27,374 who enjoyed the pleasant spring evening at RFK Stadium -- not to mention the first shutout in Nationals history.
The win -- powered by Jose Vidro's two-run homer -- put behind a brief two-game losing streak, courtesy of the Florida Marlins, and kept the Nationals tied with Florida atop the National League East. But there were so many more important elements, particularly because the calendar still says April. Last year, when they were the Montreal Expos, this franchise lost 15 of 19 to the Braves. Now, the Nationals have started this season by taking three of four from Atlanta, another in a series of signs that shows this might be a different team altogether.
"Like I keep saying," Vidro said, "we're more mature."
No one gave an indication of newfound maturity more than Day, the 26-year-old righty who had an ERA of 8.44 and had lost his spot in the rotation after that brief outing against the Braves on April 11. Robinson has been adamant that Day has the stuff to be an effective major league pitcher, but he needs to throw strikes.
"I trust my stuff," Day said. "The main thing is just pitching, just going out there and just pitching."
But even with that approach came the mess in the first inning. He allowed a leadoff single to Rafael Furcal, who promptly stole second. He then walked second baseman Marcus Giles to bring up Chipper Jones, he of the .396 batting average and four home runs entering the game. In the dugout, Robinson stewed.
"That's what you agonize over," he said.
But with the runners going, Jones hit a ball toward the middle that shortstop Cristian Guzman fielded cleanly, stepped on the bag and fired to first. Day retired the next hitter and went on to set down eight of the next nine.
"We got some momentum," Day said.
The Braves sensed it.
"We let Day up early in the game," Braves Manager Bobby Cox said.
What Day showed from there on out, though, was a huge lift for his teammates. He was far from perfect, walking four. But he fought, working out of a jam in the fourth with two runners on, then getting a double play ball in the seventh from Andruw Jones, the last of his 94 pitches.
"We had a guy on the mound who's a year wiser," outfielder Brad Wilkerson said. "You hate to say bad things about somebody, but he showed a lot of guts compared to last year. You get in that mess in the first inning, and he finds a way to get out of it. I think that was probably the biggest turning point in the game."
The other turning point, if there was one, came in the bottom of the third, after Wilkerson singled and took second on a fly ball to center. Vidro came into the game on a bit of a roll, having hit in nine straight. But Braves starter Horacio Ramirez got two strikes on him.
"It's two strikes," Vidro said. "Tough to look for pitch to hit out of the ballpark."
Yet Ramirez hung his 1-2 offering, "definitely a mistake," he said, and Vidro launched it over the left field fence, a two-run shot that was his fourth homer of the year. The Nationals managed only six hits on the night -- first baseman Nick Johnson singled to extend his hitting streak to 10 games as well -- but that was enough.
Day, then, was able to turn it over to setup man Luis Ayala and closer Chad Cordero, who slipped on the rubber and found himself sprawled on the mound in the ninth. But just like the Nationals, he got back up, dusted himself off and, with two runners on, struck out Brian Jordan and Andruw Jones to end it -- a scene that may not have happened in the past.
"We certainly are overdue to play good baseball against them," Robinson said. "Normally, this was the type of ballgame that they would beat us in, last year and the years before. They'd come back in this ballgame in the seventh, eighth, ninth innings, and win. Tonight, we closed them down."