Nats Use Clutch Hit To Drive Home Win

Jason Bay scores ahead of the tag by Nationals catcher Robert Fick as the Pirates took a three-run lead in the first.
Jason Bay scores ahead of the tag by Nationals catcher Robert Fick as the Pirates took a three-run lead in the first. (By Gene J. Puskar -- Associated Press)
By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 17, 2006

PITTSBURGH, July 16 -- Jose Vidro stood in the batter's box, bat rested on his shoulder, as Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Roberto Hernandez began lobbing balls toward the plate.

Nick Johnson stood in the on-deck circle, swinging a bat, while Vidro watched the four balls go by. The Pirates and Nationals had been exchanging leads all day, and now Johnson strode to the plate with the bases loaded and one out in the 11th inning. Vidro, a .214 hitter against Hernandez, walked to first base.

Jose Guillen stood in the Washington Nationals' dugout and liked what he was seeing.

"That was a big mistake," Guillen said later. "We had the perfect guy right there."

Ten pitches later, Johnson delivered a two-run double into the left field corner, the biggest blow in an 8-4 Nationals win on Sunday before 18,908 at PNC Park. Johnson's poke snapped a five-game losing streak and saved the Nationals from being swept by the team with the worst record in the major leagues.

It also gave the Nationals a clutch hit they desperately needed. They had left a season-high 14 men on base during Saturday night's loss, and they had left four runners stranded at third base on Sunday before Johnson came to the plate in the 11th.

"Today was a mental test," said catcher Robert Fick, who delivered a two-out, RBI single in the eighth that gave the Nats a 4-3 lead. "It was tough. They came back and we came back, they came back, we went ahead, they came back. It was a good win for us."

Johnson was one of the opportunity-wasting culprits, striking out in the ninth inning with Alfonso Soriano on third with one out. But he wasn't thinking about that when he walked to the batter's box, only about the at-bat at hand.

"And you know Nick Johnson isn't going to strike out twice in that situation," Fick said.

Hernandez attacked Johnson with fastballs, running the count full. Hernandez kept nibbling on the outside corner -- fastball, fastball, fastball -- but Johnson flicked all three of them into the stands along the third base line.

Hernandez threw one more fastball on the outside corner, and Johnson drove it the other way. As it short-hopped the left-field fence, Marlon Anderson and Soriano wheeled around the bases to give the Nationals a 6-4 lead.

"You're just up there battling," Johnson said.

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