By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 17, 2006
This all could have been remembered simply for the return of the New York Yankees, who last stepped on the turf at RFK Stadium in 1971, when they played the final game here against the old Washington Senators, a game that never ended because fans stormed the field with two outs in the ninth, so dismayed were they over the departure of baseball from the District. That night, the Senators had the lead, but the Yankees won by forfeit.
The events of last night, though, will be remembered for the legions of Yankees fans on hand and the lead that was coughed up in a far more traditional fashion. In front of the largest crowd at RFK since baseball returned to Washington -- 30,000 more than attended that final game 35 years ago -- Nationals relievers Gary Majewski and Chad Cordero wilted against the Yankees, who overcame a two-run deficit and used Bernie Williams's tiebreaking homer in the ninth to seize a 7-5 victory.
"You have to win these type of games," said Nationals Manager Frank Robinson, whose team isn't winning any games at the moment. The loss was Washington's fifth straight, and it came in particularly distressing fashion, for Majewski and Cordero are supposed to be part of the team's strength -- two pitchers deemed good enough to join Yankees stars Derek Jeter and Johnny Damon on the American team in the World Baseball Classic -- and they simply couldn't do the job against New York.
"I just stunk it up," Majewski said.
An apt summary, but this implosion was more complex. In front of an announced crowd of 44,749, the Nationals chipped away at Yankees starter Jaret Wright to take a 5-3 lead, largely on the strength of former Yankees. First baseman Nick Johnson, who was traded prior to the 2004 season, went 2 for 3, doubled twice and scored three runs. Left fielder Alfonso Soriano, a Yankees star before he was dealt to Texas the same year, jacked a two-run homer in the third, his 24th of the year.
"But they're a good team," Soriano said. "They've got a good lineup."
Even with that lead, there was something eating at Robinson. The Nationals, he felt, should have had more. They went just 1 for 8 with runners in scoring position, and in a classic example of their inability to explode for runs during their recent slide, they loaded the bases with no outs in the fourth and needed a pinch hitter, Daryle Ward, to pop a pathetic little sacrifice fly to right, enough to score Johnson. That was it.
"It comes back to get you," Robinson said.
Still, after rookie right-hander Shawn Hill held the Yankees to three runs through his six innings, Robinson turned over the game to his bullpen. In an environment in which the fans on hand alternately rose to cheer for the Nationals and then the Yankees, New York's first threat to come back was in the seventh. But with men on second and third, Jon Rauch came on to strike out Alex Rodriguez looking at a slider -- further solidifying Rodriguez's image in New York as a tight player in clutch situations. Rauch then got Robinson Cano swinging, and the pro-Nationals element jumped up, cheering.
"Anytime we score five runs, we think it's enough," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "We trust our pitchers."
Twenty-nine times, the Nationals had taken a lead after seven innings, and 25 times they had won. Last season, Majewski and Cordero combined for a 2.41 ERA. Majewski led the team with 24 holds; Cordero led the majors with 47 saves.
Not so last night. Majewski entered in the eighth, and after Williams led off with a first-pitch single, Majewski proceeded to get two strikes on each of the next five hitters. He retired only one, a strikeout of Andy Phillips. Melky Cabrera brought the Yankees within one on a single off a 2-2 pitch, and Jeter walked with the bases loaded to tie the game when Majewski missed with a fastball and the count full.
"All I know is when you get two strikes up here, you got to get the third one," Robinson said. "You got to get the guys out when you get ahead of them. He wasn't able to do that."
Majewski, who failed to hold a save situation for the fifth time this year, clearly was upset with himself afterward, particularly for failing to finish off hitters.
"It's aggravating," he said. "That's when you try to do too much."
Still, Cordero had the chance to keep the Nationals in the game. But with one out in the ninth, the young closer faced Williams, the ragged, 37-year-old outfielder. He started Williams with a change-up.
"Maybe he missed on the location a little bit," Williams said. "He threw it high in the zone and I was able to hit it up in the air and hit it out."
That got the Yankees' fans up, and when Williams submerged into the visitors' dugout, the crowd chanted "Ber-nie! Ber-nie!" as if they stood in the Bronx, not just to the east of Capitol Hill. And that was it. Cordero gave up two more hits and another run, and by that point, Yankees closer Mariano Rivera was already in the game.
"He's not who he is for no reason," Zimmerman said of Rivera, who sailed through the ninth on eight pitches. The last man up was Damian Jackson, and he grounded weakly toward first. Rivera covered the bag, recorded the out and got the win. The Yankees themselves headed out to shake each other's hands, and their fans headed to the exits, set up for a very nice weekend here.