Four-Run Eighth Keeps Nats in the Race

Braves second baseman Marcus Giles chases down a ground ball hit by the Nationals' Deivi Cruz in the fourth inning. Cruz would later score to tie the game.
Braves second baseman Marcus Giles chases down a ground ball hit by the Nationals' Deivi Cruz in the fourth inning. Cruz would later score to tie the game. (By Gary Cameron -- Reuters)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 10, 2005

Those conversations you had at the water cooler, the ones with your friends at lunch, the ones in which the topic is the Washington Nationals and the nice little season they had, and isn't it too bad that it's over? Turns out the Nationals occasionally have such talks, as well. So it was last night, when Jose Guillen, the right fielder who seemingly was without a significant hit in the second half of the season, turned to veteran reserve Carlos Baerga.

"If we don't win this game," Guillen said, "we're done."

Which, it seemed, was an accurate statement. But if we have learned something about the Nationals, about baseball in its first summer back here since 1971, it might be to delay those conversations until the season is officially over. They entered last night trailing in the National League's wild-card race by four games. They ended the top of the fifth inning down to the Atlanta Braves by four runs. They entered the bottom of the eighth still trailing by two.

And they won.

"We still believe," third baseman Vinny Castilla said.

For one more time, it seemed like it. Brad Wilkerson hit a two-run double to tie the game in the eighth, and Guillen followed with a two-run double of his own, the outburst that brought about an emotional 8-6 victory and sent an announced crowd of 36,295 spilling from the stands at RFK Stadium, murmuring about how, just when their team had stumbled out of things, they yanked themselves back in.

"The way things are going, you've got to be amazed that we came back the way we came back," Manager Frank Robinson said. "And against a team like that, they usually don't give it back once they get it."

So instead of becoming even more of an afterthought in the race, they put themselves in position to play this afternoon, on national television, with 15-game winner Livan Hernandez on the mound, to pull even closer. They now trail the Houston Astros by three games, and the clubhouse was abuzz again as a three-game losing streak ended in a fashion that felt very much like the hot, sweltering days of June, when these kinds of wins were nightly events. A big hit from Wilkerson, another from Guillen, a save from Chad Cordero -- his 44th of the season, setting a new franchise record. It was, at one point, a foolproof formula.

"Like old times," Robinson said.

If only it were that easy. There were disturbing signs here, too, most notably the performance of starter Esteban Loaiza, the man who, given the frayed state of the Nationals bullpen, needed to come up with a stellar outing. He didn't, allowing a pair of runs in the first inning, then four in the fifth, including Andruw Jones's 46th homer of the year, a three-run shot that made it 6-2.

"It doesn't really surprise you anymore," Atlanta starter Horacio Ramirez said. "He's the man right now."

Conversely, it has been a long time since Guillen has been the man, a fact from which he does not run. "That's the truth," he said afterward.

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