By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 17, 2006
MIAMI, April 16 -- There was no evidence that this was on the way, not given what Ryan Church did in spring training, where he hit .200, not given what he did when he went to the minors, where he hit .130, and not given what he did in his first seven at-bats this season with the Washington Nationals, in which he failed to get a hit. Yet for the Nationals to finally win back-to-back games, to sprinkle some positive into what threatened to become a sea of negativity, something unusual had to happen, so it might as well come from a guy who admitted to looking "stupid" at times this weekend.
Church hit a pair of two-run homers Sunday afternoon, the first to tie the score in the sixth, the second to take the lead in the ninth, leading the Nationals to a 7-5 victory over the Florida Marlins that gave Washington its first series win of the season.
"If we didn't get two wins here, we would've been in trouble, I think," said second baseman Jose Vidro, limited to a pinch-hit appearance because of a tight hamstring. "We definitely needed to get two out of three. There's no question."
The events of a warm Sunday afternoon at Dolphin Stadium made the upcoming trip to Philadelphia much more palatable, for that is where the Nationals conclude their grueling season-opening stretch that featured 13 of their first 16 games on the road. No one, though, was more encouraged than Church, the 27-year-old whom the Nationals believe has enormous potential, but has allowed his struggles to get in his head -- and stay there.
Church arrived at spring training with the attitude of a veteran, though he had just 331 major league at-bats in his two-year career. But when he struggled, Brandon Watson slipped past him and stole his spot on the roster in large part because Watson is a prototypical leadoff hitter, and Church is not.
"I had to come to grips with that," Church said.
Church continued to flail away at Class AAA New Orleans. Only the combined struggles of Watson in particular, and the Nationals as a whole, led to Church's promotion for the weekend series against the Marlins. When he arrived in the majors, he was still a mental mess.
"I was pressing," he said. "It was just one of those things in my head. I'd get up there, and I'd have no approach. I'd get in that box, there's a million things going on in my head, and it's one of those things where I had to step back, take a deep breath, and say, 'Screw everything,' and just be me."
He finally did that in the sixth. Facing right-hander Sergio Mitre with the Nationals trailing 3-1, Church drove the first pitch he saw to left-center field, where it snuck over the fence to tie the game. It is the kind of result the left-handed hitting Church gets when he's going well, a drive to the opposite gap. But prior to that point, he wasn't going well at all.
"The way I've been swinging," he said, "I was really surprised."
There was plenty left that would surprise. In the top of the seventh, Marlins rookie Carlos Martinez struck out Marlon Anderson, who filled in for Vidro at second base. When Anderson swung through the final pitch, Martinez slapped his chest and yelled in celebration. Anderson took exception, pointing his bat at Martinez, a gesture that brought both benches and bullpens onto the field for a brief skirmish, though no punches were thrown.
When order was restored, the Nationals took a 4-3 lead on Vidro's sacrifice fly in the eighth, and a series win seemed at hand. But with one out in the bottom of the inning, Gary Majewski came on in relief of Mike Stanton. The result: walk, game-tying double to Miguel Olivo, popup, go-ahead triple to pinch hitter Wes Helms. Suddenly, Majewski and his teammates trailed 5-4.
"I shouldn't have put them in that situation," Majewski said.
But the Nationals pulled Majewski out of trouble with a little help from Florida's youth. With one out in the ninth and Alfonso Soriano representing the tying run on third, Nick Johnson hit a sharp grounder to Marlins rookie Hanley Ramirez at shortstop. Ramirez, playing as part of a drawn-in infield, looked Soriano back once, looked to first, looked back at Soriano again -- and then threw the ball well out of the reach of Marlins first baseman Mike Jacobs. Soriano scored easily, and the game was tied.
It all set up Church. Ryan Zimmerman followed with a walk against Marlins closer Matt Herges, and though Johnson was gunned down trying to advance to third on a near-wild pitch, Church was ready. He had faced Herges on Friday, striking out on a curveball.
"The other night," Church said, "he made me look stupid."
Not this time. When the curveball came again at 2-2, Church waited, and then swung. He didn't get it all, but it didn't matter, for it snuck over the fence in right, giving the Nationals a two-run lead. Closer Chad Cordero put his early-season struggles further behind with a perfect ninth for his second save in two nights, and the Nationals' clubhouse was as festive as it has been in this young season.
So tee up all the obvious one-liners, about how the kid named Church resurrected his career on Easter Sunday. Afterward, Vidro asked the day's hero to go back to the clubhouse kitchen and grab Vidro a beer. And then Vidro called after him.
"Get one for me," he said, "and one for you."
Back at Vidro's locker, the two clinked their beer bottles together, and enjoyed a sweet sip. Finally, two wins in a row.