Nats Get Themselves Back in Race

Esteban Loaiza
Esteban Loaiza tosses eight innings of one-run ball and has 11 strikeouts in the Nationals' 6-1 win over Philadelphia. (John McDonnell - The Washington Post)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 5, 2005

The summer flows by, its little landmarks tied to picnics, parties and, now, baseball. On Memorial Day, Washington Nationals Manager Frank Robinson emerged from his dugout and argued with members of the umpiring crew, who then changed a home run from Atlanta's Brian Jordan into a foul ball. The Nationals beat the Braves by one run, on their way toward settling into first place.

On the Fourth of July came a loss to the New York Mets, the beginning of a precipitous fall. On that day, the Nationals led the National League East by 4 1/2 games. A month later, they trailed by 4 1/2 .

So we arrive today at Labor Day, near summer's end. And behold the Nationals, a full season's strife apparent on their worn faces and in their tattered psyches, still standing, still in the running for the postseason. Yesterday's 6-1 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies made that scenario -- so unlikely in spring training, so unlikely even last week -- a reality. With a week to go on a homestand that everyone involved acknowledges could determine their fate and establish their character -- one way or the other -- they are just two games behind in the race for the National League's wild-card playoff berth.

They have, at times, fought with each other. They have, at times, bristled under their manager. They have, at times, looked inept offensively. But while many Americans flip burgers and run through sprinklers one last time this afternoon, the Nationals will face the Florida Marlins at RFK Stadium in yet another very meaningful game.

"When you have success, everything looks good," said Robinson, aware of his club's fragile state. "And when you don't, nothing looks good. But I really liked the approach and the attitude the last couple days, the spirit of the ballclub."

Nothing buoys the spirit like the kind of performance turned in by right-hander Esteban Loaiza, who gutted out eight innings when the team needed just that. He allowed one run, gave up four hits, matched a career high with 11 strikeouts and threw a season-high 128 pitches -- all on three days' rest. He so mastered the Philadelphia hitters that in the bottom of the sixth, with the Nationals up 3-0, the bases loaded and two outs, Robinson sent Loaiza up to hit for himself despite a bevy of potential pinch hitters, an unorthodox move.

Loaiza, standing in the on-deck circle, was surprised to be there.

"I see nobody warming up, and I said, 'I guess I just got to bear down right now,' " he said later. "I'm a veteran, and I know what I'm capable of doing."

Loaiza's spirits, in turn, were buoyed by one swing in the second inning, a three-run homer from catcher Brian Schneider, one on which Schneider maturely noted that Phillies rookie Gavin Floyd couldn't locate his curveball, so he came to the plate seeking a fastball.

"There's no reason to look for a pitch if a guy's not going to throw it for strikes," Schneider said. "And Gavin, he wasn't throwing it for a strike early on, so you try to eliminate that pitch."

The first pitch, predictably, was a fastball, and Schneider turned on it, sending it into the right field bullpen for that 3-0 lead. Even in good times, that is a relative explosion for the Nationals, who couldn't put anything else together against Floyd. When Loaiza struck out in the sixth, he had to continue to hope he could stave off a dangerous Phillies lineup.

Things got easier, though, in the seventh, when the Nationals put two runners on, and center fielder Preston Wilson faced right-hander Pedro Liriano, appearing in just his fourth game this season. Less than 17 hours earlier, Wilson provided the hit that again staved off devastation for the Nationals, a game-winning single in the bottom of the 12th to beat the Phillies, 5-4. And here, he provided the insurance, jumping on a 1-2 fastball and driving it where few hitters have gone at RFK this season, into the upper deck, to Section 447.

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