Nats Take A Tumble In the 10th

Mets right fielder Victor Diaz leaps to catch a fly ball hit by Nationals starting pitcher Esteban Loaiza in the third inning. Loaiza went seven innings, giving up two runs and striking out seven.
Mets right fielder Victor Diaz leaps to catch a fly ball hit by Nationals starting pitcher Esteban Loaiza in the third inning. Loaiza went seven innings, giving up two runs and striking out seven. (By Nick Wass -- Associated Press)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 24, 2005

They were down to one last batter, and with the goals now drastically altered -- trying to finish with a winning record and stay out of last place, rather than trying to reach the playoffs -- it would have been easy to gather up the bats, useless for most of the night anyway, and watch the New York Mets walk away with a 2-0 victory. Yet pinch hitter Carlos Baerga, he of the neatly coifed hair and the bat that still contains some pop, hit a game-tying homer with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, enough to keep an announced crowd of 30,194 jumping at RFK Stadium, one of the last opportunities to do so this season.

"We want to finish over .500," Baerga said afterward in a quiet Washington Nationals clubhouse. It will, now, take some doing, because regardless of how much fight they have left -- regardless if it says "Finish Strong" on the grease board outside their locker room -- the Nationals have some work to do over the final eight games to make sure they have a winning season. Last night, Carlos Beltran offset Baerga's heroics with a three-run homer in the top of the 10th, and the Mets took a 5-2 victory that was Washington's fifth loss in its last six games.

"We've come a long way," Nationals catcher Gary Bennett said. "The second half, obviously, hasn't gone the way we wanted. That's an understatement. But we don't want to throw it all away these last few weeks. We've got to finish strong."

In the end, the difference for the Mets was that the third and fourth hitters in the their lineup, Beltran and Cliff Floyd, combined to go 6 for 10 with a double, a triple, Beltran's game-winning homer and all five RBI. Compare that to Washington's third and fourth hitters. Nick Johnson had a single, drew two walks and was hit by a pitch in five trips to the plate, but cleanup man Jose Guillen went 0 for 5, continuing his offensive free fall that has him hitting .136 in September, down to .283 on the year.

"Next question," Manager Frank Robinson said when asked about Guillen's struggles.

The loss was difficult enough to handle, but one of the best story lines that remain in the season -- the first major league playing time for 32-year-old rookie Rick Short -- may have drawn to a close as well. Short suffered a temporary, partial separation of his left shoulder when he dove to make a play in the sixth inning. He'll have an MRI exam today, and Robinson was asked if he thought Short would return. "I doubt it, very seriously," he said.

Until Baerga's dramatic and improbable homer, the crowd had almost nothing about which to cheer. Nationals starter Esteban Loaiza fell into the same trap that made the first portion of his year so frustrating -- throwing quite well, but watching his teammates fail to deliver runs. Floyd came through with the only offensive blow of the first eight innings, a 390-foot, two-run single with the bases loaded in the sixth, Loaiza's only blemish in seven frames. His ERA is down to 3.63, but he has just 11 wins.

"I've been doing my job," Loaiza said. "I'm just trying to erase my record."

Washington's only consistent offense came from rookie third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who went 3 for 4 with a double, raising his average to .440 since he was called up on Sept. 1. It was he who singled with one out in the ninth, setting the stage for Baerga, who popped one to right off of Mets reliever Roberto Hernandez. Some early-season magic?

"We did have it," Robinson said, "for a short while."

But with reliever Gary Majewski on the mound for a second inning, the Nationals collapsed in the 10th. Majewski issued a one-out walk to pinch hitter Marlon Anderson, and shortstop Jose Reyes followed with a sharply hit grounder toward Nationals shortstop Deivi Cruz, in the game only because Cristian Guzman had been lifted for a pinch hitter. Cruz, though, allowed the ball to bounce past him, an error that put runners on first and third.

Majewski responded with gumption, striking out Victor Diaz. He then jumped ahead on Beltran 1-2 before missing with two fastballs. Even though Reyes stole second, leaving first base open, there was no thought of walking Beltran, because Floyd awaited in the on-deck circle, and he has torched the Nationals.

So Majewski tried one last fastball to Beltran.

"I wasn't going to walk him," he said, and he didn't. "It was right in the middle of the plate."

Beltran turned on it and sent it on a line to right, a no-doubt-about-it, three-run blast, Beltran's 16th in a season that has been considered a disappointment in New York. That assessment didn't matter much to Majewski, who crouched in front of the mound in frustration. Cruz's error meant that all three runs were unearned, but it didn't matter. The blast was just the second homer Majewski has issued in 81 2/3 innings this season.

"I made a mistake," Majewski said. "He gets paid to hit mistakes."

With that, the Nationals stand at 78-76, as close as they have been to .500 the second half of the season. They haven't been at .500 since they were 25-25 on May 29, and with eight games remaining in the season, they must win at least four to finish with a winning record.

"I think it's very important to everybody to try to finish over .500," Robinson said. "At least you can build from there. If you finish under .500, you're always going into next year saying, 'We've got to get to .500 first, guys.'

"But if you finish over .500, you can say, 'We can go from here. If we win 'x' number of games more than we won last year, we can win this thing.' "

© 2005 The Washington Post Company