Nationals Make a Move and Get Going

Jason Bergmann is safe at home, beating the throw on Jose Vidro's double in the fifth that tied the score at 2. Preston Wilson added a decisive RBI single.
Jason Bergmann is safe at home, beating the throw on Jose Vidro's double in the fifth that tied the score at 2. Preston Wilson added a decisive RBI single. (By Tami Chappell -- Reuters)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 31, 2005

ATLANTA, Aug. 30 -- At a time when they should have, by their own admission, long ago been dismissed as a playoff contender, the Washington Nationals delayed the downgrade at least another day. And at a time when playoff contenders are merely tweaking their rosters for the season's final month, they took their most expensive offseason acquisition, shortstop Cristian Guzman, and essentially benched him.

Such was the landmark nature of Tuesday at Turner Field, where the Nationals made a trade with the San Francisco Giants for infielder Deivi Cruz, then went out and beat the Atlanta Braves, 3-2, in front of 20,001 who had gathered to watch their Braves take another step toward yet another division title.

How much was working against the Nationals, not only over the last month, but in this game specifically? Their ace starter, John Patterson, came up with his shortest outing of the year, 2 2/3 innings, before he left with stomach cramps. The Braves had swept the Nationals in three games here late last month, sending Washington out of first place in the National League East. And the Nationals seemed to be flailing, with General Manager Jim Bowden talking about the need for changes, for a "spark," and calling on Cruz -- a .269 career hitter -- to provide it.

But when the night ended, they had 6 1/3 scoreless innings from a beleaguered bullpen, including Jason Bergmann's first major league win and Chad Cordero's 42nd save. They had Jose Guillen's 24th homer. They had what, for the last six weeks, has been as rare in Washington as a dodo bird -- a two-out, run-scoring hit, this a single from center fielder Preston Wilson, breaking a tie in the fifth inning, scoring what held up as the game-winning run.

So, improbably, the Nationals will rise Wednesday -- facing a monumental doubleheader against the Braves -- to find themselves just 1 1/2 games back of the Philadelphia Phillies and the Florida Marlins, who are now tied atop the National League wild-card standings. So even as this team has looked done for more than a month, the Nationals could use the doubleheader against the Braves, in which Livan Hernandez and Esteban Loaiza will pitch for Washington, to springboard back into, of all things, the wild-card lead.

"I said the other day, 'They're going to let us hang around here and win this thing,' " Manager Frank Robinson said. "They're giving us a chance. There's no reason why we should be where we are in the wild card if other teams were playing anywhere decent.

"But you know the old saying: Don't let a guy hang around. If you got a chance to knock him out, knock him out. They've had a chance to knock us out the entire second half of the season, and they haven't done that yet. So maybe we'll bounce back off the ropes and get up off the canvas and win this thing."

If they do, Cruz might be a significant part of it. In exchange for the veteran of nine major league seasons, the Nationals parted with Class A right-hander Ben Cox. Robinson said after the game that Cruz was not coming as a spare part.

"He'll come in here and he'll start to play as soon as he gets here," he said.

That means that Guzman, signed to a four-year, $16.8 million deal in the offseason, will sit. Cruz has a reputation for swinging at bad pitches and drawing very few walks, precisely Guzman's problems. But while Guzman entered Tuesday's game hitting a horrific .196 with an on-base percentage of .238 -- 43 points lower than the next-worst offensive player in baseball, Pittsburgh's Jack Wilson -- Cruz's average in 81 games for the Giants was .268, his on-base percentage .301.

The thinking, Bowden said, is to give Robinson, who is managing a team that has scored the fewest runs in baseball, more offensive options. Cruz could also play second base, where Jose Vidro is battling two bad quadriceps muscles.

"Guzzy's hitting under .200 with September [arriving] on Thursday," Bowden said. "Vidro's playing on sore quads and is going to have to play hurt the rest of the year. We're not scoring any runs. . . .

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