By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 15, 2005
DENVER, Aug. 14 -- In one corner of the visitors clubhouse at Coors Field, Jose Vidro sat at his locker, knowing that at the time when he is needed most, he is starting to come through. Only a few paces away sat Nick Johnson, a wrap around his back and two more around his ankles, but feeling pain-free and happy after a four-RBI day. And down a few more stalls was John Patterson, still a bit steamed over the one run he allowed in the eighth inning, the kind of perfectionist mentality that has been absent in the Washington Nationals clubhouse during these difficult days, but just might be ready to return.
That's what a victory like the one on Sunday, a dominant 9-2 performance that completed a three-game sweep, will do to a club. Those postgame beers, the ones that felt lukewarm and tasted flat for more than a month, were back to being crisp and cold. The attitude, heading to an important four-game series in Philadelphia, had started to return to the way it was early in the year.
"Winning has a funny way of doing that," catcher Gary Bennett said. "When we're losing, and a guy has a bad game, a couple guys have a bad game, it shows in here. But we go out there and win 2-1, and scuffle offensively, it's a totally different vibe."
There was very little offensive scuffling for the Nationals here this weekend, when they completed their first series sweep since July 1-3 against the Chicago Cubs, which was also the last time they won more than two in a row.
But against the National League's worst team, they righted themselves with the kind of execution -- in clutch situations both on the mound and at the plate -- that has been absent for so long.
"This is," as Vidro said, "when it counts. This is what it's all about." And in that situation, they held the Rockies to just four runs over three games, their lowest output in the 11-year history of Coors Field. Six games into a 13-game road trip, Washington has shaved a game off the Houston Astros' lead in the race for the NL's wild-card playoff berth, and is now just one behind.
"This is what we needed," Manager Frank Robinson said. "We got it. Let's get out of town."
But the way they played here, the Nationals might never want to leave. After Saturday's 7-0 victory, they threatened to post the first back-to-back shutouts of the Rockies ever at Coors Field. If there was a key moment, it may have been when Colorado, trailing 2-0, decided to intentionally walk Brad Wilkerson with a runner on second and two outs in the fifth. That brought up Vidro, who was so taken aback by the strategy he wasn't even looking up as he crouched in the on-deck circle. Wilkerson came into the at-bat 7 for 14 against Acevedo, but he hadn't played in the first two games of the series. Vidro, meanwhile, is in the middle of an offensive tear that shows he might be returning to his past position as one of the league's most consistent hitters.
"We take a lot of pride playing this game," Vidro said.
The challenge issued, he ripped a run-scoring single to center, the highlight of a 3-for-4 afternoon that made him 7 for 11 in the series. Johnson followed with his 11th homer, turning on an 0-2 fastball from Acevedo that hit the foul pole in right, a three-run shot. Jose Guillen immediately followed with a solo homer, his 21st, and for just the second time all season -- and the first since April 9 in Florida, when Ryan Church and Vinny Castilla did it -- the Nationals had back-to-back homers.
So the rout, for the second straight game, was on. And that helped Patterson relax a bit. From the moment he took the mound, he didn't feel comfortable, he said, and it showed a bit in his results. The Rockies -- fresh off stranding 15 runners in Saturday's loss -- put runners on in each of the first six innings as Patterson struggled with his command. Yet even through all that, Colorado couldn't score.
"It wasn't his best stuff," Bennett said. "But that just shows you how dominant he can be."
But with the big lead, a rarity for Patterson, he could relax a bit.
"That makes it a lot easier," he said, "especially knowing how I felt. I could just be more aggressive in the strike zone."
He got outs when he needed them, double-play balls in the third and sixth, fending off the threats and letting the Nationals' offense go to work. He finally gave up a run in the eighth, but that was it, an eight-inning, nine-hit performance that improved his record to 7-3 and dropped his ERA to 2.44, third in the NL.
It all helped create an atmosphere in the clubhouse that has been absent for so long.
"It's not wins, it's the way we play," Robinson said. "We're not there yet, but it's coming slowly. We've got to put the formula together that we played with most of the time in the first half of the season: Pitching, defense and timely hitting."
That formula was there this weekend, when they went 12 for 25 with runners in scoring position, when their starters allowed one run in 20 1/3 innings. Will it carry to Philadelphia, where the Phillies lead the Nationals by just a half-game?
"It's going to be a great series," Guillen said. "This road trip is going to determine if we're going to make it or we're not going to make it. That's what we say at the beginning of this road trip. It started well. Right now, we're going to play the division, and anything can happen."