In the End, Nats Have A Blast in Milwaukee

Milwaukee Brewers catcher Damian Miller tags out Washington Nationals' Royce Clayton after a failed sacrifice bunt attempt in the sixth inning.
Milwaukee Brewers catcher Damian Miller tags out Washington Nationals' Royce Clayton after a failed sacrifice bunt attempt in the sixth inning. (By Morry Gash -- Associated Press)
By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 4, 2006

MILWAUKEE, June 3 -- Frank Robinson has often bragged this week that, more than two months into the season, his team has finally developed some resiliency. The Nationals had bounced back from a disastrous first six weeks to win three of four series. They had recovered nicely after losing back-to-back games to start this nine-game trip.

On Saturday night, the Nationals treated Robinson to their latest -- and perhaps most dramatic -- recovery, and it left the manager gushing about his team's stick-with-it mentality. With the Nationals trailing in the ninth inning, catcher Brian Schneider stepped to the plate and undid eights innings of disaster with one forceful swing. He ripped a two-run homer to right field with one out and Ryan Zimmerman on third to give the Nationals a 4-3 win in front of 40,392 at Miller Park.

In an upbeat clubhouse after the game, the Nationals heralded Schneider's hit as a potential landmark in their season. It gave them a three-game winning streak, clinched their fourth series in the last five and convinced Robinson that his team has turned a crucial corner.

"My job was to get Zimmerman in, and I knew I had done my job as soon as I hit it," Schneider said. "We're starting to win these close games. That gives you confidence."

Pitcher Chad Cordero allowed runners to reach first and second before he earned his ninth save, but another Nationals reliever registered a greater accomplishment. Bill Bray (1-0) enjoyed perhaps the most bizarre major league debut in franchise history: He threw one pitch -- a fastball outside -- that led to a caught stealing. For that, he earned a win.

"Good things happened," Bray said, "and I didn't even have to do much."

The same could be said for almost the entire Nationals team Saturday. Players had bragged before the game that they had learned to thrive by playing "small ball" but, against Milwaukee, "tiny" would have described the offense more accurate.

For eight long innings, the Nationals hits hardly left the infield. Even when they did score runs, it was only thanks to timely happenstance: A four-pitch walk to starting pitcher Mike O'Connor led to a run in the third inning; an infield single by Alfonso Soriano led to a run in the third.

In a 10-4 win Friday night, the Nationals proved they do not need home runs to win. On Saturday, they tried to take their formula one step further: They hardly got hits.

Had it not been for another solid effort by O'Connor, the Nationals meager offense would likely have left them too far behind for a comeback. O'Connor provided the Nationals with the same type of start he always gives them: solid if unspectacular, throwing five-plus innings well enough to keep his team in the game. The 25-year-old from Ellicott City has thrown at least five full innings in all eight of his starts this season, and he has never allowed more than three runs.

"With him," Robinson said, "you know what you're going to get."

On Saturday, it might well have been cardiac arrest. O'Connor frequently flirted with disaster, but he almost always evaded it. He walked a runner and threw a wild pitch in the first inning, only to induce two quick outs. He walked two batters in the third inning, but then struck out Geoff Jenkins to end the inning.

His mistakes finally began to catch up with him starting in the fourth. Another walk led to Milwaukee's first run when Corey Hart singled in the fourth. O'Connor walked two more in the sixth inning before Robinson took him out of the game.

"I definitely got behind on too many guys," O'Connor said. "I started getting all my pitches up. Usually when I'm off, that's where I'm going to miss."

When Saul Rivera replaced O'Connor, he inherited runners on second and third. He also seemed to inherit the control issues that had haunted O'Connor all game. He walked Corey Hart to load the bases and fell quickly behind in the count, 2-0, to Brady Clark. Needing a strike, Rivera tossed a standard fastball that Clark ripped for a two-run single, giving Milwaukee a 3-2 lead.

Earlier in the season, that hit likely would have provided the knock-out punch. This time, though, it only set the stage for Schneider's heroics.

"This team knows how to bounce back now," Robinson said.

The manager measures the Nationals' success one series at a time, and he has always put more credence in steady improvement than instant success. By winning their fourth series in five tries, the Nationals achieved a landmark Robinson heralded as significant.

"Slowly but surely, we're getting better," Robinson said. "This team has grown a lot over the last two weeks."

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