Nats Upbeat After Salvaging a Win

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 30, 2005

ST. LOUIS, May 29 -- They hadn't even finished showering, hadn't yet packed their bags, and they were talking about it. The Washington Nationals ended their first horrendous road trip of the year Sunday, and they quickly tucked it into a suitcase and locked it away. Up next: the Atlanta Braves and the Florida Marlins. Seven games over a week at RFK Stadium, the latest test of whether the Nationals can stay afloat in the National League East.

"It's a huge week for us," center fielder Brad Wilkerson said. "We've got to step it up a notch to play these teams."

Wilkerson gave the Nationals reason to be a bit more optimistic about the impending homestand Sunday, doubling three times -- including the first timely hit the Nationals had all week, a two-out, two-run double in the fifth inning that sparked a 3-2 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals, mercifully ending Washington's five-game losing streak, pulling the club back to .500.

Right-hander Livan Hernandez joined Wilkerson in the hero department, winning his seventh straight decision by willing himself through seven tumultuous innings, allowing two runs and working out of a bases-loaded jam in the fifth, leaving Manager Frank Robinson to describe it as a "real gutty performance from him -- gutty, gutty, gutty, gutty." And second baseman Jamey Carroll -- hitless in his previous 13 at-bats -- pushed through what turned out to be the game-winning hit, scoring Wilkerson on a ground ball that somehow found its way through the left side of the infield.

All this comes as the Nationals try to put behind their 2-7 trip and begin their longest -- and perhaps now most crucial -- homestand of the year. Thirteen games, none more important than the first two series against the top two teams in the NL East, Atlanta and Florida, which both have stumbled lately.

Atlanta, which begins a four-game set at RFK Monday, has stripped closer Dan Kolb of his job and watched right fielder Raul Mondesi stumble to the point that after they called up rookie Kelly Johnson on Sunday to take his place in the lineup -- Mondesi is considering retirement. Florida, which had lost four straight before beating the New York Mets on Sunday, has a struggling bullpen.

The problems of both Atlanta and Florida have allowed the Nationals, even after the horrendous road trip, to remain within 3 1/2 games of first place, showing that the NL East might remain the most competitive division in baseball. As one executive said recently, the teams in the East "all have pimples." None, perhaps, are as big as the giant blemish on the Nationals' face -- their utter lack of offense. Still, the Nationals found solace in the fact that they're going home to play meaningful games.

"This is a road trip that we're going to have to put behind us," Robinson said. "We're going to have to make it up somewhere, somehow."

Had one ball bounced another way or had Cardinals starter Chris Carpenter (7-3) retired Wilkerson in the fifth, the Nationals likely would have trudged off to their charter flight still muttering about their stagnant offense, for they didn't exactly explode on Sunday. Rather, they reinforced what Robinson has been saying since the early days of February: The Nationals won't out-slug anybody. Rather, they need to come through with timely hits. When an opportunity presents itself, don't blow it, because there might not be another.

They did it in the fifth, getting singles from Marlon Byrd and Brian Schneider -- on a nice hit-and-run -- followed by a one-out sacrifice from pitcher Hernandez. That brought up Wilkerson, who had doubled in his first two at-bats. He fell behind 0-2, swinging at a ball out of the strike zone.

Yet in the last several days, a strained nerve in his right forearm has begun to feel better. It showed in his first two at-bats, when he drove balls from Carpenter to left-center and center for doubles. This time, he got a pitch on the outside part of the plate and smacked it the opposite way to left, scoring Byrd and Schneider, for his major league-leading 21st double.

"I feel a lot better," Wilkerson said afterward.

As did the whole team. After Hernandez departed -- having thrown 121 pitches -- Gary Majewski got Cardinals second baseman Mark Grudzielanek to ground into a double play to end the eighth, and closer Chad Cordero -- with his first save opportunity of the road trip -- pitched a perfect ninth for his 11th save.

And for once, there were smiles all around -- not only about what had just happened, but for what lies ahead.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company