It All Swings Wrong Way For Nationals

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 12, 2006

CINCINNATI, May 11 -- It was the kind of swing that replays on television screens and in minds for the rest of the night, a sweet blend of bat meeting ball, the perfect timing of a gifted player using his God-given tools. Ken Griffey Jr. at his most sublime, driving a pitch to center field, a home run.

When you are not on the other end of that scene, it is beautiful. For the Washington Nationals on Thursday night, it was stomach-turning. Nationals left-hander Joey Eischen entered with one out in the 11th, the Nationals up by two runs with two men on. He faced Griffey, the Reds superstar who was making his first appearance in a month, activated hours before the game after spending time on the disabled list with a knee problem.

Eischen started Griffey with a breaking ball for a strike. And then he threw a fastball. Griffey began that fluid swing, and he propelled the pitch to center. There was never a doubt. The three-run homer gave the Reds a heart-thumping 5-4 victory over the Nationals, who were in position to win a series but lost it in devastating fashion.

"It was awesome," said Griffey, and from his perspective, that's exactly right. But the Nationals, in a silent clubhouse afterward, wondered openly as to whether they could overcome such a traumatic loss.

"This kicks you right in the gut," Manager Frank Robinson said. "It's one you don't forget easily. It stays with you for a long time."

It stays there because it so easily could have been a win. The Nationals had done so much to force extra innings in the first place. Zach Day -- the Cincinnati kid who was discarded by the Colorado Rockies and picked up by his former team, the Nationals, less than three weeks ago -- threw seven splendid innings, allowing just one run. The Nationals' most significant problem, for much of the game, seemed to be Reds right-hander Bronson Arroyo, who shut them out over eight innings for the second time in less than three weeks.

But in the ninth, there was some life, started by Daryle Ward's leadoff single against Reds closer David Weathers. When catcher Matthew LeCroy lofted a sacrifice fly to shallow right, pinch runner Damian Jackson slid across with the tying run. The Nationals were fighting.

"You think you're going to win after that," second baseman Jose Vidro said.

If they thought they were going to win then, they were sure of it two innings later. Closer Chad Cordero courageously worked two scoreless innings in which he threw 46 pitches, keeping the game tied at 1. And then first baseman Nick Johnson led off the top of the 11th with a blast of his own, a 432-foot drive to right-center off Reds reliever Rick White.

In many cases, that would be enough. But the Nationals even tacked on two more runs, the first on a two-out single from LeCroy, the next on a pinch-hit single from -- and yes, you are reading this correctly -- Livan Hernandez. With ailing catcher Brian Schneider the only position player remaining on the bench, Robinson used the big right-hander to hit for Cordero, and Hernandez delivered the first pinch hit of his career to put Washington up 4-1. General Manager Jim Bowden, the man who ran the Reds for more than a decade, high-fived his party from his seat in the stands.

Three more outs. That's what they needed to start this nine-game road trip in very solid fashion. Sounds simple. For these Nationals, it is not.

Robinson turned first to right-hander Jon Rauch, who gave up a leadoff single to pinch hitter Ray Olmedo. Ryan Freel followed with a single of his own, but the Nationals got a break when Freel inexplicably sprinted toward second, and Ryan Church easily threw him out. That, though, was it for Rauch, and Robinson replaced him with Felix Rodriguez. The right-hander, who hadn't pitched since Sunday, struggled to throw strikes. He gave up an RBI single to Felipe Lopez to make it 4-2. Then, the cardinal sin: a walk to Edwin Encarnacion.

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