At End of Long Trip, Nats Don't Stumble

Preston Wilson
Preston Wilson gets one of the Nationals' seven consecutive hits against Mets starter Kris Benson in the first inning. (Kathy Willens - AP)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 22, 2005

NEW YORK, Aug. 21 -- By the time the ninth inning arrived Sunday, the Washington Nationals' body language all but screamed, "Please, please take us home!" They had already endured 12 games on a 13-game road trip. They had the New York Mets down by four runs. A crowd of 42,412 at Shea Stadium that had been placid all day had started to file out.

And yet the Nationals gave everyone reason to come back. They booted two balls, the first by closer Chad Cordero, the second by first baseman Nick Johnson on what would have been the final out of the game, right in the spot where Bill Buckner stood those 19 years ago, shooting similarly through the wickets. Suddenly, Mets third baseman David Wright, a dangerous rookie, was at the plate representing the tying run.

"We don't do anything easy," Manager Frank Robinson said.

Cordero, though, averted disaster, striking out Wright with runners on first and third to close out a 7-4 victory over the Mets, one that allowed the Nationals to head to the clubhouse, the showers and eventually the train south to Union Station having won seven of the 13 games on the trip. They scuffled. They missed opportunities. But they survived.

"We didn't bury ourselves," outfielder Brad Wilkerson said.

When the Nationals last played at RFK Stadium, they were swept by the middling San Diego Padres, and they headed to the road for two weeks trailing the Atlanta Braves by 5 1/2 games, then a season high, in the National League East and were two games back of Houston in the wild-card race. Those margins grew to 6 1/2 and three games, respectively, after they began the trip by losing two of three to the Astros.

At the end of the road trip, though, they were within five games of the Braves in the division. And because every team ahead of them in the wild-card race also won Sunday, they remained 1 1/2 games behind Philadelphia, also narrowly trailing Houston and Florida.

"We were in a big rut, and we weren't playing well at all," catcher Brian Schneider said. "But I think we're playing better now. We're starting to put a couple more runs on the board. I think our offense came to life a little on this road trip. Pitching's not a factor. We need to continue to try to get them some runs."

They did that Sunday, hanging six runs on Mets starter Kris Benson in the first with seven straight two-out hits, driving Benson out after just two-thirds of an inning, the shortest start of his career. That took the pressure off right-hander Esteban Loaiza, who had a comfortable cushion before he even threw a pitch.

"That was nice," Loaiza said.

But the evaluation of the entire trip wasn't quite as simple. After Houston, they swept three in Colorado, where the Rockies reside as the NL's worst team; split four in Philadelphia; and lost the first two to the Mets. They will play six games against Cincinnati and St. Louis in Washington this week. A 7-6 road trip, as Robinson said, is "not a disaster, but we wanted better."

"We needed to have played better and won more ballgames on this road trip," Robinson said. "We could've gotten ourselves right back, right in the thick of this thing, if we had played just a little better. Just a little better."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company