Despite All, Nats Manage A Win

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 19, 2006

MIAMI, July 18 -- By now, 95 games into the season, it would seem the Washington Nationals would know when to throw a ball and when to hang on to it. It would seem they would understand that when a play's made at second, an outfielder ought to back up, because -- well, take Tuesday night, when a bunt turned into something of an inside-the-park homer for the opposing Florida Marlins because left fielder Alfonso Soriano, by his own explanation, froze in the outfield.

These, clearly, are tough times for a team in transition, and the Nationals are likely to show up on more than a few blunder reels between now and October. In between, though, they might win a few games, as they somehow did Tuesday night, a come-from-behind 7-6 victory over the Marlins that featured a two-out, tiebreaking single from reserve outfielder Alex Escobar in the top of the ninth and a cover-your-eyes-and-hope save from Chad Cordero to close it.

Those would be the highlights, for Escobar -- once a top prospect in the New York Mets' organization -- has worked his way back from countless injuries just to be in the major leagues again, and his contributions in his brief stint with Washington consist of, as Manager Frank Robinson said, getting "big, big, big hits."

Cordero, too, was important, because the man who led the major leagues in saves last season hadn't saved a game since -- when, exactly? "It was a long time ago," Cordero said, unable to come up with the answer. Finally, he had to be told -- June 17.

That this one involved Cordero's own errant pickoff throw to second base -- not to mention the fact that the Marlins loaded the bases with two outs in the ninth -- hardly mattered to the Nationals, who won for just the second time in eight games in what would seem to be excruciating fashion.

"I wasn't uneasy," Robinson said. "We put ourselves through a lot of these times. Most of the time this year, we've come out on the short end, so there's no sense in getting all stomach-in-knots or whatever. Just sit there and hope for the best."

Robinson had to hope for the best after seeing what just might have been the Nationals' worst play of the year. In the bottom of the fifth, light-hitting Marlins center fielder Reggie Abercrombie laid down a bunt to lead off the inning. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman charged and picked it up with his bare hand. "I just didn't get a great grip," Zimmerman said.

And so it began. The ball sailed down the right field line. Second baseman Marlon Anderson scooped it up and tried to nail Abercrombie at second. But shortstop Felipe Lopez couldn't block the throw, and it scooted into the great emptiness that was left field. Soriano was nowhere to be found.

"The play should've been backed up," Robinson said.

Soriano said he understood, but when he saw Anderson make the throw, "my body started to freeze." Robinson said the issue was discussed with Soriano -- a converted second baseman -- in the dugout between innings, but that was long after the Marlins had built a 5-1 lead.

"You see it all the time," Robinson said of the outfielder's responsibility on such a play. "I don't care where you play."

Those issues aside, the Nationals did well in fighting back against Marlins lefty Dontrelle Willis. The big blows came from first baseman Nick Johnson, who went 3 for 4, doubled in one run in the sixth and came through with a two-out, game-tying two-run single that knocked Willis from the game in the seventh.

Florida took the lead in the bottom of that inning with a two-out RBI single from Miguel Cabrera -- who went 4 for 4 to lift his average to .332 -- but Washington catcher Robert Fick responded with a two-out homer in the top of the eighth, tying things again at 6.

That set up the winning rally. Zimmerman started it by doubling with two outs off reliever Logan Kensing, extending his hitting streak to 17 games. After Kensing walked Johnson intentionally, Escobar shot a pitch back up the middle, scoring Zimmerman from second.

Escobar, who entered as a replacement after Jose Guillen came down with an elbow injury, is now hitting .438. If Guillen wasn't a prime candidate to be traded he would likely be earning more time.

"I've been stopped many times by injuries, unfortunately," Escobar said. "But I've been able to stay strong and battle through it and make my way back. I determined myself to finish my goal, and my goal is not done yet."

With that, they turned the game over to Cordero. Alfredo Amezaga opened the ninth with a bunt single that Cordero nearly threw away. Amezaga was sacrificed to second, where Cordero tried to pick him off, but he caught his spike. "I shouldn't have thrown the ball," he said.

But after walking Cabrera, he struck out Mike Jacobs, walked Wes Helms to load the bases and somehow came through with a game-ending, bases-loaded strikeout of Jeremy Hermida. Take a deep breath. It may have been fundamentally unsound, at times filled with folly. But it was a win, and that's a rare commodity for the Nationals these days.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company