Nats' Offense Comes To Life

Marlins Manager Jack McKeon, right, consoles pitcher Dontrelle Willis after McKeon took him out in the fifth inning.
Marlins Manager Jack McKeon, right, consoles pitcher Dontrelle Willis after McKeon took him out in the fifth inning. (By Wilfredo Lee -- Associated Press)

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By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 28, 2005

MIAMI, Sept. 27 -- There were times, even before they were officially eliminated from the playoff chase, when the Washington Nationals seemed to be merely wafting through the season, allowing things to happen to them rather than taking charge and seizing the moment. But even as they wind up their final week, the playoffs now a dream gone by, they can take some solace in the fact that, as bad as things got, they didn't simply stop playing. "The effort," Manager Frank Robinson said, "has been there."

Which is all a means of addressing the Nationals' opponent, the Florida Marlins, on a sleepy Tuesday night at the intersection of the Florida Turnpike and Interstate 95. In spring training, the Marlins looked to be the most talented team in the National League East. Earlier this month, they seized the lead in the race for the NL's wild-card playoff berth. Now, they are merely embarrassing themselves.

On a night when left-hander Dontrelle Willis was making his last audition for the Cy Young Award, the Nationals pounced on the flailing Marlins, slogging their way to an 11-1 romp that was so difficult to watch, only a few hundred of the 11,507 who paid to see it remained at Dolphins Stadium by the completion of Florida's 11th loss in its last 13 games, its season-high fifth straight.

The Nationals, baseball's lowest-scoring team, hadn't scored in double digits since May 11 against San Francisco, and they chose a night on which they faced Willis to do it again. Rather than a coronation for Willis, the evening -- which was marked by mist, then showers, then downpours -- provided another sign that the Nationals might recover from their recent skid and finish the year with a winning record. They go for a sweep in Florida Wednesday, and the Marlins -- Team Turmoil this week -- could be the team to finish with a losing record.

"I know they've been going through a tough time," Nationals second baseman Jamey Carroll said. "When you score some runs like that against probably the best pitcher in the league this year, it may have taken the wind out of their sails."

As if there was any wind left. Nationals outfielder Marlon Byrd matched his career high with four hits, including two doubles and a solo homer, and he scored four runs. Carroll set a career high with three RBI. Every Nationals starting position player reached base twice via a walk or a hit, and they won on a night when right-hander Jon Rauch -- who had surgery on his right shoulder in May -- started for the first time this season and pitched three shutout innings, the first of four Washington pitchers.

And because of it all, the Nationals (80-78) need only to win one of their final four games to ensure a .500 season, and a split will give them a winning record. Moreover, the win pulled the Nationals even with the Marlins in the standings. Not only do they now have company in last place, but they remain just a half game back of the New York Mets, who somehow reside in third. It is conceivable, even after their horrendous second half, that a strong finish could put the Nationals alone in third.

The Nationals had done virtually nothing against the herky-jerky lefty in his three starts against them this year, just four runs in 21 innings, and Willis had won all three games by a combined score of 30-5. So bounce around the Nationals' clubhouse, ask who should win the NL Cy Young, and the response would be almost universal: Willis over St. Louis's Chris Carpenter.

"My pick would be Willis, because this team is not always running on all gears," Robinson said. "St. Louis was like a machine this year. You don't penalize Carpenter for that. But to me, it's Willis. If nothing else, we couldn't beat him."

That is, until Tuesday night. And when they finally did, they may have derailed Willis's chances for the honor. In his previous 12 starts, Willis hadn't given up more than two earned runs. But he gave up five in his four-plus innings, dropped to 22-10, and his ERA rose from 2.44 to 2.59. Carpenter is 21-5 with a 2.71 ERA.

"I think we had a little bit of help tonight," Robinson said.

Indeed, in his final start of the year, Willis was foiled by his own fielders, who committed two errors in the second, another in the third, all of which led to runs. So the whole thing seemed like a battle between one team that has already played through its worst times and another that is in the middle of its. Florida appears to be in complete disarray, having jettisoned right-hander A.J. Burnett on Monday because of comments Burnett made about Manager Jack McKeon and the coaching staff. McKeon's future, too, is a matter of much speculation, and the murmurs from the Florida clubhouse are that the 74-year-old manager has alienated his team.

The Marlins presented little evidence to the contrary. They could do nothing against Rauch. He didn't find out he would start until 4:10 p.m. -- Robinson knew he would have to use his entire bullpen, and didn't want to make anyone nervous -- but he pitched effectively for three innings, showing that the shoulder problems that shut him down in May might be over.

"I'm still not the same old me," he said, but the three-inning, two-hit outing was nonetheless encouraging for next season.

"It's important for him mentally," Robinson said, "and I think it's good for us to see where he is when the season ends."

It will, too, be important for the Nationals to see where they are when the season ends. A winning club? A losing club?

"It means a lot to everybody from the top all the way down," Byrd said.

More in the Nationals Section

Nationals Journal

Nationals Journal

Adam Kilgore keeps you up-to-date with every swing the Nationals make.

Stadium Guide

Stadium Guide

Take an interactive tour of the district's newest stadium, Nationals Park.

Baseball Insider

Baseball Insider

Dave Sheinin reports the latest MLB news and examines the game's nuances.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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