Hammonds Is Right on Time

Jeffery Hammonds is congratulated after getting the game-winning hit in the bottom of the ninth inning Wednesday night. The 1-0 victory over the Brewers is the first walk-off win at home for the Nationals. (Joel Richardson - The Washington Post)
Jeffery Hammonds is congratulated after getting the game-winning hit in the bottom of the ninth inning Wednesday night. The 1-0 victory over the Brewers is the first walk-off win at home for the Nationals. (Joel Richardson - The Washington Post)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Sports Writer
Thursday, May 19, 2005

They had come from behind, but always on the road. They had made the home crowd roar, but never quite this way. The sense at RFK Stadium is that there will be new experience sprinkled throughout the summer, but you never know who, you never know how, you never know when.

So in the bottom of the ninth last night, with many of the 29,216 patrons still in their seats, Jeffrey Hammonds -- who entered the game with just two hits all season -- ripped a bases-loaded single down the left field line, the hit that gave the Nationals a 1-0 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers, their first win on a game-ending hit at home and one that guaranteed them a winning seven-game homestand.

The hit couldn't have been more timely for Hammonds, who had been struggling, or for the Nationals, who had struggled with a makeshift lineup for two nights against the Brewers.

Hammonds's hit overshadowed a splendid pitchers' duel between star-crossed Esteban Loaiza of the Nationals and lefty Chris Capuano of the Brewers, a pair who hung 16 zeroes on the board before Loaiza was relieved by Gary Majewski to start the ninth and Capuano was removed with one out in the bottom of the inning. Between them, they allowed just 11 hits in 16 1/3 innings and no walks.

By the ninth, though, that was all a memory. Jamey Carroll sacrificed Wilkerson to second, and Mike Adams relieved Capuano. Vinny Castilla followed with a huge cut that yielded a dribbler down the third base line. It went as a single, and after Adams intentionally walked Nick Johnson, Hammonds came up and hit a bouncer down the line. Wilkerson watched it pass, then pumped his fist before trotting home with the winning run.

The only time Loaiza didn't seem in complete control was in the second, when he seemed to have some brief issues with RFK's troublesome mound, and in the bottom of the sixth, when he hit a leadoff single up the middle and was promptly picked off by Capuano.

Other than that, he was the pitcher he has been for much of his brief stint in Washington -- only better -- giving up no extra base hits and not allowing a runner to reach second until the eighth. Even then, the Brewers barely sniffed a threat, for Loaiza got Junior Spivey to pop out foul to first. In eight sterling innings, he allowed six singles, struck out five and walked none. Loaiza threw 92 pitches, 63 for strikes, a lesson in how to pound the strike zone, and lowered his ERA to 3.08.

But Loaiza's problem this year has not been Loaiza. Rather, it has been the Nationals' inability to score runs for him. Coming into last night, no National League starter had received fewer runs per game than the 2.19 the Nationals provided Loaiza. Thus, his decidedly un-gaudy 1-2 record, despite the fact he had allowed just eight runs over his last four starts.

Yet of all the pitchers on the Nationals' staff, Manager Frank Robinson said Loaiza was best-equipped to handle it.

"He hasn't changed his demeanor and his makeup or his personality at all," Robinson said. "He's still happy-go-lucky and involved with everybody in the clubhouse and the dugout before the games and during the games. . . .

"I know must guys would be sulking and blaming the offense for not giving him support or the defense for making bad plays behind him. He hasn't said one word. He hasn't blamed anybody."

How long that can last, it's hard to say. The Nationals' lineup certainly isn't what it should be, not with its third and fourth hitters on the bench rather than in the field. Jose Vidro, the second baseman, is on the disabled list with a badly sprained left ankle, and though he's eligible to come off on Friday, he won't be ready for at least two weeks after that. Jose Guillen, the right fielder, is sitting out the rest of the Brewers series with a strained muscle in his rib cage.

So the group that came out to support Loaiza wasn't capable of providing much. Wilkerson led off the bottom of the first with his NL-leading 15th double, but Robinson -- perhaps sensing that one or two runs could be enough for Loaiza -- tried to get Carroll to bunt Wilkerson to third. But Carroll's bunt went right back to Capuano, who threw Wilkerson out at third.

Capuano, meanwhile, matched Loaiza zero for zero, doughnut for doughnut. The 6-foot-2 left-hander, in his third year in the majors, was every bit as good, if not better. He retired 12 of the next 13 after Wilkerson's double, struck out the side in the fourth, and looked strong late in the game.

When the Nationals finally got a runner to third with two outs in the eighth, the game still scoreless, Capuano reared back and fired a fastball past Tony Blanco, hitting for Loaiza, the strikeout that kept the Brewers alive.

But only momentarily. In the end, it was Hammonds.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company