By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 19, 2006
PHILADELPHIA, April 18 -- Last week, the Washington Nationals arrived in Florida, losers of six in a row, the worst team in baseball. Tuesday afternoon, word trickled through the visiting clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park that the team's general manager, Jim Bowden, was arrested and charged with driving under the influence of alcohol over the weekend in Miami. They seem to send pitchers to medical specialists on a daily basis, and they haven't yet played even two series at home.
Tuesday night, though, they somehow managed their third win in a row, a 10-3 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies powered at the start by Daryle Ward, in the middle by Ryan Zimmerman and in the end by Ryan Church, whose ninth-inning grand slam turned a three-run game into a blowout.
"It's very important that we got something going before we dug a deep hole for ourselves, and it would take an awful lot to come out of it," said Manager Frank Robinson, who won the 999th game of his career. "Slowly, we're starting to do that, and we have to continue moving forward."
They moved forward Tuesday night because Ward, a veteran reserve, made his first start in the outfield since June 2004 -- subbing for the injured Jose Guillen -- and sent the first pitch he saw into the right field seats for a home run, one he followed with a double two innings later. They moved forward because Zimmerman, the rookie third baseman who was hitless in his previous 10 at-bats coming into the game, hit a pair of doubles and drove in three runs.
And they moved forward because Church somehow forgot that he went 3 for 23 while with Class AAA New Orleans before being recalled last week, mixing in a double with his grand slam off Geoff Geary -- the second in Nationals history, following one by Brad Wilkerson against the Los Angeles Dodgers last August.
"It's a process, because this year I just haven't felt the same," said Church, who hit two homers on Sunday to help beat the Florida Marlins. "There's been a lot of things going on. But slowly and surely, it's starting to turn for the best. I just got to keep whatever I'm doing, just stay with it. It just comes down to trust."
Which could be a sweeping statement about all the Nationals. They must, Robinson believes, trust in their abilities, because the team is capable of scoring runs. Not 10 a night, mind you, but runs nonetheless. Every starting position player had at least one of the 15 hits Tuesday, and the club managed something that had been unprecedented: It beat Phillies right-hander Cory Lidle.
Lidle had been 6-0 with a 2.66 ERA in seven starts against the Montreal-Washington franchise, but allowed four runs and nine hits in his seven innings Tuesday -- slightly worse than Tony Armas Jr.'s six-inning, three-run effort that gave him his first win since last August. That allowed the Nationals to expand a 4-3 lead against the fragile Philadelphia bullpen, which entered the game with a 5.08 ERA that, by night's end, was much worse.
"It seems like we just go out there and have a plan, not just go out there and swing the bats," said second baseman Jose Vidro, who went 3 for 5 to raise his average to .373. "We face a guy that, in the past, really gave us some trouble, so it was good to see that."
That they did it in the face of such a slew of distractions was an encouraging sign for the coming months, when the team will be sold, new ownership will be in place and, perhaps, there will be sweeping changes in the front office. The team took the news about Bowden in stride and moved on, further distancing itself from the six-game losing streak that is less than a week old.
"It's a long season," catcher Brian Schneider said. "It sounds [foolish] to [the media], but it really is. Things can turn around really quickly."
They could have turned around quickly against the Nationals, but Felix Rodriguez pitched a scoreless seventh and Mike Stanton did the same in the eighth, aided by a spectacular play by Schneider, who picked up Chase Utley's roller and made an on-target, off-balance throw to Nick Johnson at first in a game that was just 6-3 at the time.
Church, though, put an end to any comeback thoughts, sneaking a 1-2 fastball over the fence in right in the ninth. The one swing tied his career high with four RBI.
And for the third game in a row, the music thumped in the clubhouse. "I tell you what," Vidro said. "It's a lot better feeling right now."
Better, because when the team wins, the distractions mean far, far less.
"You can't get it all back at one time," Robinson said. "You can't get it all back in one series. You can't wish for a 10-game winning streak. They come very rare. But you can start to win two out of three, three out of four, that type of thing, and then you look up, and you're at .500 -- and you go from there."