Nationals Get a (Devil) Ray of Hope

ryan zimmerman - washington nationals
Ryan Zimmerman stakes the Nationals to an early 2-0 lead with this first-inning home run Sunday as the Nats piece together a modest two-game winning streak with a 6-2 victory over the Devil Rays. (Nick Wass - AP)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 3, 2006

It's a good thing the denizens of Washington have all but cleared out this weekend, what with Independence Day tomorrow and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays at RFK Stadium. Here would be the plays from the bottom of the sixth inning in yesterday's much-needed 6-2 victory for the Washington Nationals. And please, cover the eyes and the ears of any children nearby, for these shouldn't be seen at any upcoming clinic:

There was a throw from shortstop that the first baseman found so surprising he hit the deck, as if shot by a BB. Next came a wild pitch that scored one run, and an absurd, no-look, backhanded flip from the catcher that allowed, of all things, the opposing pitcher to score all the way from second. And, finally, the convergence of two outfielders as they approached a fly ball. They were close enough to whisper in the other's ear, yet neither snagged a ball Devil Rays Manager Joe Maddon said is "caught 101 out of 100 times."

Not, however, by the Devil Rays, and that inning personified the futility of two last-place franchises locked in a three-game series that didn't exactly have the sporting public on edge. What mattered, by the end of it, was that Nationals right-hander Ramon Ortiz pitched seven solid innings, that the Nationals pounced on the Devil Rays for three first-inning runs -- sparked by Ryan Zimmerman's two-run homer -- and that Washington, so down and out after a blowout loss Friday, actually won a series for the first time in what felt like forever.

"Oh, that's right," Manager Frank Robinson said when reminded his team took two of three this weekend. "We did, didn't we?"

Such good fortune is no longer expected at RFK, where the home team has endured mighty struggles of late. Even with consecutive victories over Tampa Bay, the Nationals have lost 14 of 19 to fall into last place in the woeful National League East.

Maybe, then, what's needed to turn things around are not on ly the early cushion -- "That makes it easier for me," Ortiz said -- but the hilarity of that sixth inning. Last week, Robinson asked his team -- downtrodden and lifeless -- to look in the mirror and see what each member could do to turn the club around. Maybe what they saw in the reflection was the Devil Rays.

Asked if he had ever seen such consecutive gaffes, Robinson said: "Yeah. We're usually on the other end of it."

At the time, the Nationals led 4-1, and Ortiz (6-6) was in the midst of perhaps his best outing of the year. He allowed four hits and one run, walked none and struck out four, an efficient effort in which he threw all of his pitches for strikes.

"We love playing behind him," Zimmerman said. "He gets out there, he gets the ball, and he throws strikes. He works quick."

So, with that level of comfort, the Nationals came to bat in the sixth. Marlon Anderson -- who played center field for the first time in his major league career this weekend, and looked good doing it -- led off with a single up the middle against Tampa Bay reliever Jon Switzer. After an out, Ortiz laid down a bunt.

Switzer scooped it up and threw to shortstop Tomas Perez, who was covering second. The throw was late, and Anderson was safe. But Perez, in an effort to get Ortiz, threw to first anyway. Problem: First baseman Greg Norton wasn't near the bag, and when the ball approached, "He had to get out of the way at that point," Maddon said. It's as if the announced crowd of 23,823 yelled, "Duck!" And Norton did.

The error put runners on second and third, and after Jose Vidro popped out to shallow right, the Devil Rays were set to get out of the inning. Except, with Royce Clayton up, Switzer uncorked a wild pitch that catcher Dioner Navarro couldn't block. Anderson scored easily, and here came Ortiz from second.

"You know what?" Ortiz said. "I play the game hard."

Navarro -- perhaps aware of that, or perhaps preparing for a career as a long snapper in the NFL -- flipped the ball both blindly and aimlessly, and Ortiz scored easily.

"I'm sure that's the first time that's ever occurred in the history of baseball, with the pitcher standing on second base," Maddon said. "It was a bad moment for us."

Clayton eventually reached second when center fielder Damon Hollins and right fielder Russell Branyan couldn't decide who should take his fly ball, continuing the ridiculous inning.

For Washington, though, Ortiz's outing was the most encouraging sign. Anderson, who could play more center in the future, was another. And right fielder Jose Guillen, in a massive slump in a first half that included a stint on the disabled list with a bad right hamstring, chipped in with two doubles, though both Robinson and a member of the athletic training staff met with him at second base after he knocked in a run in the first.

"It was tight," Guillen said of his right hamstring. "But I don't need to take another day off, not when I'm just getting comfortable. It's all in my head. I've got to get back into it."

All the Nationals could say the same thing. They have seven games before the all-star break, all of them at home. Now, if they could just keep the slapstick Devil Rays around, maybe they could go on a real winning streak.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company