Thanks to Sweep, a Historic First

Ryan Church
Ryan Church watches his home run sail over the fence as he begins to run to first. The three-run shot gives the Nationals a 6-3 win. (John McDonnell - The Washington Post)
By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 6, 2005

Even the last out had to make the Nationals' hearts flutter. A fly ball to left was sinking, sinking, sinking fast until Marlon Byrd ran under the ball, snatched it in his glove and a great roar filled RFK Stadium. Jamey Carroll jumped in the air, pumping his fist, his teammates spilled from the dugout and there was in left field a red and white forest of clapping hands and slapping backs.

First place! The word swept across the field, after this 6-3 win over Florida yesterday.

First place! The news hit the clubhouse at exactly the moment someone flipped the switch on the stereo and a grinding beat rattled off the walls.

First place! Team president Tony Tavares whispered into the ear of General Manager Jim Bowden that this was the latest a Washington team had been in first since 1933. Bowden, the man who inherited the woeful Expos on Nov. 2, threw back his head and laughed.

"Wow!" he said. "Wow! 1933? Let's see, in 1933 I was minus-28."

The season is but a third of the way done and the National League East might be the least stable of all divisions, with the smallest gap between first and last. But for a day that didn't matter in the little room beneath the RFK stands. Once again the Nationals came from behind to win, the eighth straight time this has happened. And after winning three of four from the Braves and sweeping the Florida Marlins, they had crawled back to the top of a division that just a week ago seemed lost.

The manager, Frank Robinson, smiled. "I'm in the clubhouse with these guys, and the way they have carried themselves and the way they feel after tough losses and the way they carried themselves the next day, you get a good feeling that good things will happen to them and for them."

Yesterday they looked done, which was understandable. After scrapping to beat the Marlins the first two games of this series, they were beaten up and broken down. In addition to the long line of players already on the disabled list, center fielder Brad Wilkerson was out with a sore forearm and right fielder Jose Guillen had an aching right hand, the result of having been hit by a pitch on Saturday night.

And to make matters worse, Florida pitcher A.J. Burnett was firing 97 mph fastballs so routinely that Robinson had the speed gun turned off on the scoreboard to spare his hitters the despair of looking at a string of 97s flashing their way.

At the end of 6 1/2 innings, the Nationals trailed 2-0 and there didn't appear to be much reason to think that would change.

But with two men on and one out, Guillen was in the indoor batting cage trying to see if he could swing a bat when one of the coaches yelled, "You're up!"

Guillen stepped up and lined a single to right to make it 2-1. Carlos Baerga pinch-hit with the bases loaded and was hit by a pitch and Byrd lofted a sacrifice fly to right to put Washington ahead 3-2.

But the Nationals gave the lead back in the top of the inning, allowing a run on two singles and a double. And it set up yet more Nationals drama -- which has become a nightly occurrence around here. A Nick Johnson walk, a double play grounder by Vinny Castilla that was booted by Marlins third baseman Damion Easley and suddenly Washington had two men on and Florida Manager Jack McKeon was calling for left-handed reliever Matt Perisho to face the left-handed hitting rookie Ryan Church.

Church has been bedeviled by left-handers this year, striking out six times in 17 at-bats. But Robinson had no choice.

"There was no one left," Church said with a laugh.

Perisho threw a fastball on the outside part of the plate that probably would have tied up Church had it not cut back across home plate. Church swung, made contact and then raced toward first looking up just in time to see the ball drop over the right field fence. The 40,995 in the stands leaped to their feet.

Three outs later, first place!

"It really builds resilience so when you do get in the ballgames later in the year with the pressure, you should handle it," Robinson said. "This is good for our run, it really is."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company