Johnson Provides A Nice Ending

Washington's Nick Johnson is surrounded by happy teammates after hitting his first home run in 78 at-bats.
Washington's Nick Johnson is surrounded by happy teammates after hitting his first home run in 78 at-bats. (By Kevin Wolf -- Associated Press)
By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 2, 2006

Nick Johnson had seen it on television many times, the hero of the game throwing himself into a waiting sea of bodies at home plate, floating off the field after a game-ending home run.

What's that like? Johnson would think to himself.

He knows now, and he learned at just the right moment for the Washington Nationals. Johnson launched a two-out, game-winning home run off of Tampa Bay reliever Brian Meadows in the 10th, lifting the Nationals to a 4-3 win last night at RFK Stadium. "Never done that before," said Johnson, whose blast struck the giant clock beyond the right-center field fence. "It was fun."

Johnson had not hit a home run in 78 at-bats, but he left no doubt about the game's outcome as soon Meadows's 2-1 offering -- "fastball, up," Johnson said -- crossed the plate. As Johnson circled the bases, his thoughts were simple: We won the game. That hadn't happened in four games, and the win was only the Nationals' second in their past 11 tries. The home run not only gave Washington a needed win, it gave the Nationals a possible spark, a signature play in a season painfully devoid of them.

The Nationals sprang from the dugout, leaped over the wire fence and ran to home plate to mob Johnson.

"I almost knocked out [catcher Brian] Schneider with an elbow," Royce Clayton said.

Clayton had reason to celebrate. He had wasted an opportunity to break open the game by grounding into a double play with the score tied at 2 in fifth, and he had booted a certain double-play ball in the eighth inning that could have spelled disaster.

"Those things usually come back to haunt you," Nationals Manager Frank Robinson said. "We should have won the game, 3-2. We had a chance to win this game before the 10th inning. But it's good to get a win."

Had they held on without the aid of extra innings, the coldest hitter on the team would have become the hero. Jose Guillen stepped the plate in the sixth inning mired in a 1-for-26 slump. His batting average teetered points above .200. He had admitted he was pressing, that the struggles had stressed him out.

It all changed when he launched a 3-1 fastball from James Shields into the upper deck, a shot that landed in the purple seats in Section 450. The Nationals led 3-2, the first time they had led in 42 innings.

It would not last long, less than an inning. Aubrey Huff drilled Livan Hernandez's 119th pitch of the night into the mezzanine above the right field fence, a solo homer that knotted the score at 3.

In the eighth, Johnson presented Guillen the opportunity to become the hero once more. Johnson socked a liner to center that nailed the top half of the fence, narrowly missing a home run. He had to settle for a leadoff double.

Ryan Zimmerman moved Johnson to third with one out with a grounder up the middle, and up came Guillen. Tampa Bay Manager Joe Maddon summoned right-hander Chad Harville from the bullpen. If Guillen put the ball in play, it meant the lead and, probably, the game.

But Harville made Guillen chase a pair of 58-foot curveballs for strikes two and three. Marlon Anderson ripped a ball up the middle, but shortstop Julio Lugo smothered it and ended the inning.

Chad Cordero and Gary Majewski teamed to shut out the Devil Rays for three innings, biding time for Johnson's heroics.

The Nationals look on Johnson, one of the quietest, most diligent players on the team, with unique admiration. When he finally got his chance to dive into a pile of teammates, it meant as much to them as it did to him.

"This franchise is trying to build for the future, trying to create building blocks," Clayton said. "Nick Johnson is an excellent example of that. He cares. He's a true professional, and that's rare in this era of big contracts. You could give him the world, and he wouldn't change. He just takes care of business."

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