By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 18, 2006
The day could have ended hours earlier, shortly after New York Yankees center fielder Johnny Damon launched a grand slam. The pinstriped fans at RFK Stadium howled and danced, celebrating a seven-run lead. In between innings, Damon gazed at the fans in the upper deck at RFK. They beamed back and forth like schoolgirls, all enjoying what looked to be a nice, easy afternoon in the sun.
But by the time the ball blistered off the bat of Jose Guillen, a shot up the gap in right-center field in the bottom of the eighth, the shadows had grown long, and the game had changed completely. Daryle Ward, something of a 240-pound dump truck on the bases, barreled from first and looked at third base coach Tony Beasley. Beasley waved him home.
"Are you crazy?" Ward said he thought. But he chugged to the plate and scored the go-ahead run, the final crazy play on the zaniest of days at RFK. There, the Washington Nationals stormed back to deliver an 11-9 victory that had the announced, sellout crowd of 45,085 thundering its approval.
How unlikely was all this? The obstacles, in no particular order, were these: A five-game losing streak that had the Nationals dragging themselves to the park. That seven-run lead, which became the largest the Yankees had blown since July 2002. A back injury to one of the team's best hitters, Nick Johnson, that sent him to the bench in the third, when he was replaced by Ward. And, not the least, the mere presence of Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, who hadn't allowed a run in more than four weeks.
Yet the Nationals overcame them all, and somehow -- less than 24 hours after they blew a two-run lead in the eighth inning themselves -- sent the Yankees to their most painful loss of the year.
"As bad as it gets," was how Yankees Manager Joe Torre described it. So in the other clubhouse?
"I tell you what," said Torre's counterpart, Frank Robinson. "If these kind of wins can't get you up, nothing can."
There is little doubt the Nationals were up after this one. When Damon hit his grand slam off reliever Saul Rivera in the fifth, it completed an inning in which the Yankees took a 2-2 game and made it 9-2. Alex Rodriguez launched a two-run homer to break the tie, and Jorge Posada immediately followed with a solo shot. The crowd -- the largest to see a baseball game at RFK Stadium since Opening Day for the old Washington Senators in 1969 -- contained more Nationals fans than those for the Yankees, but at that point, you wouldn't have known it.
"I thought I was at a football game," Ward said.
But the Nationals immediately answered back with four in the bottom of that inning, restoring some life to their segment of the crowd, cutting the lead to a more manageable 9-6. That, several players said, might have been as important as the hits against Rivera three innings later.
"If you put nothing up there," said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who doubled in a run during the frame, "it's going to be tough to come back in that game."
So the Yankees became the team on the defensive, the team without enough relievers to provide the proper answers. Just as Mike Stanton and Jon Rauch held New York scoreless in the seventh and eighth, Washington scored two in the seventh -- the first on Ward's solo homer into Section 469 off rookie T.J. Beam, the second on a two-out, pinch-hit single from Robert Fick off Scott Proctor.
Then, to start the eighth, came the man who changed the game, former Yankee Alfonso Soriano. He drew a walk off Proctor to lead off the inning, and with one out, Torre turned to Mariano Rivera, the second day in a row he asked the future Hall of Famer to record five outs.
Rivera had trouble recording one. Soriano stole second, and with Ward at the plate, took off for third on a 2-2 pitch. Had Rivera looked behind him, he would have seen shortstop Derek Jeter in position to have Soriano picked off.
"When I saw it, I was already on my way home," Rivera said. "I picked up my leg already. Nothing you can do."
Catcher Jorge Posada threw in vain toward third, and when the throw sailed errantly into left, Soriano trotted home, creating the tying run all by himself.
"That's the kind of player he is," Zimmerman said. "He can change the game at the plate, on the bases, whatever. It doesn't matter."
There was still the matter of beating Rivera, and Ward put himself in position to do that by drawing a walk. That brought up the slumping Guillen. After his third at-bat, a weak popup with men on first and third in the fifth, the right fielder was so frustrated that he headed up the tunnel toward the clubhouse. His hands were cut with five nasty blisters, the result of swinging Soriano's heavier bat in the cage early in the week. He was uncomfortable.
"It was a lot of stuff that came through my mind," Guillen said. "It was like, I don't even want to come outside and keep playing."
But he righted himself with a double in the seventh. And here, against Rivera, he worked the count full, then drove the ball to the opposite gap. Right fielder Bubba Crosby scooped it up and relayed to Jeter, but here came Ward, who had no intention of sliding.
"I was looking at Posada like, 'Okay, we're going to have a collision,' " Ward said. But the throw was late. Guillen had a triple, then scored on a single by Zimmerman. And when Chad Cordero closed it out in the ninth, the Nationals had their most stirring victory of the year.