Nats Snag One From The Fire

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 4, 2005

It was just about to be as bad as it could get. The ace right-hander had done everything he could, allowing just one run. But the sure-as-the-sun-comes-up closer had frittered away a three-run, ninth-inning lead, and the Washington Nationals -- quite familiar with low points these days -- were about to hit a new one. Had the Philadelphia Phillies come back to win last night at RFK Stadium, "I think it would have almost pulled the plug on the life support," Nationals Manager Frank Robinson said. "It would probably have been pretty close to the season, really."

The season, then, is extended another day for this dysfunctional bunch, which for the first time in anyone's memory gathered in a moment of spontaneous joy, slapping backs and hugging each other. Preston Wilson served a soft single into right field in the bottom of the 12th inning, scoring Jose Guillen from second with the winning run in an essential 5-4 victory, bringing at least a few moments of joy to what remained of the announced crowd of 30,561.

So, again: The shovel was in the dirt, the coffin had been lowered, and here came the Nationals, at least for one more day.

"If we lost the game right there, it was going to be a different atmosphere here [today]," said Guillen, who was inserted in the eighth inning and walked before Wilson's single. "I don't know where we were going to go from there. But trust me, if we win that game [today], it's going to be a different story, because we're going to be right there."

They are now three games behind the Phillies, who lead the National League's wild-card race. A win today would be a step in the direction the Nationals have been unable to take in a maddening second half of the season.

"We need to start winning series," catcher Gary Bennett said.

That's what a victory today would provide, at a time when every loss feels devastating and every win staves off, at least temporarily, the frustration of a magical season gone bad. This one could have been wrapped up much more easily, for right-hander John Patterson allowed just one run in 7 2/3 innings and the Nationals handed a 4-1 lead to closer Chad Cordero, who was looking for his franchise-record 44th save.

"I wasn't thinking anything but win at that point," Patterson said.

But Cordero couldn't get it. He served up a leadoff single, then faced Ryan Howard, the Phillies rookie first baseman who is both massive and talented. With the count 2-1, Cordero tried a fastball low and away, and the left-handed hitting Howard merely flicked it over the wall in left. "A strong man," was Bennett's assessment.

Still, it was 4-3. Cordero, surely, would nail it down. Except he couldn't. The next hitter, David Bell, drove a 1-0 slider that stayed over the middle of the plate deep to left, tying the game at 4, making excruciating pain a very real possibility.

"We had our guy on the mound," Brad Wilkerson said, "and they beat him tonight."

Such a loss, on any day and for any team, would be difficult to overcome. But the Nationals are so fragile right now, it's a wonder they speak to each other. Guillen has been at the center of much of it. He didn't appear in the starting lineup for the second straight game, and he and Robinson offered differing versions of why that was. Robinson said Guillen asked out because he is in pain from myriad injuries he has suffered. Guillen, prior to the game, said that wasn't the case.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company