By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 3, 2006
At precisely 1:07 p.m. yesterday, before a few hundred spectators scattered around a clammy park in a setting with all the ambiance of an American Legion game, Washington Nationals left-hander Billy Traber began what promised to be a very long day of almost meaningless baseball at RFK Stadium.
By the time their day-night doubleheader with the Arizona Diamondbacks concluded, however, the Nationals did not seem to mind their 8 1/2 -hour stay whatsoever.
First, there was a five-run comeback and 7-6 victory that ended with the last of four walks in the 11th inning. Then there was the eighth-inning uprising against old friend Livan Hernandez in the nightcap that turned a two-run deficit into a 4-3 triumph -- the third consecutive game in which Washington rallied to win in dramatic style.
"We'll take 'em any way we can get 'em," said Manager Frank Robinson, whose ballclub scored twice in the ninth Thursday and beat Philadelphia in 10 innings. "That's what it takes, that's fine. We hung in there and got some big hits in the end."
The big hits in the second game came as Hernandez was marching toward his second win since being traded to the Diamondbacks early last month. He scattered six hits through seven innings, but with one out in the eighth and a 3-1 lead, Ryan Zimmerman homered to left, Nick Johnson singled and Austin Kearns followed with another homer.
Chad Cordero, the winner in Game 1, struck out the side in the ninth after hitting the leadoff batter to earn his 24th save.
Hernandez received a warm ovation when he was introduced at the start of the game and another when he departed in the eighth, tipping his cap on the way to the dugout after 125 pitches.
"Livan was tough today," said Kearns, who began the day hitting just .231 with four homers since joining the Nationals in mid-July. "He missed a little bit and I was just glad to square one up."
Jason Bergmann pitched well for the Nationals, allowing only four hits over seven innings. A game-opening walk led to Arizona's first run -- brought home on Eric Byrnes's two-out bloop single -- and a two-out walk in the third preceded Luis Gonzalez's homer to right.
The Nationals were getting nowhere with Hernandez, who escaped early trouble and retired 14 of 15 batters before Zimmerman's blast to left, Johnson's single up the middle and Kearns's drive to center.
Few witnessed the Nationals' early heroics. Traber's opening pitch slamming into Brian Schneider's mitt was clearly audible from the upper deck. Yellow-jacketed ushers seemed to outnumber spectators in some sections of the lower bowl.
Foul balls lofted into prime seats rattled around unclaimed nearly until the next pitch was thrown. Screech, the fowl mascot, desperately roamed the aisles for young fans to amuse.
Between the gloomy weather and early start, "I'd probably be home watching football," Zimmerman joked after Game 1. "It wasn't the best, so for the people who came out here, you've got to salute them for sticking it out. It was definitely a little bit quiet, but it's kind of fun sometimes -- you can hear everything."
What the Nationals heard the first seven-plus innings were a few howls of discontent, but mostly silence. Diamondbacks starter Miguel Batista yielded one run on five hits before being lifted in the eighth. His teammates, particularly rookie center fielder Chris Young (3 for 5, five RBI), had built a 6-1 lead.
With Batista gone (and on his way to his ninth no-decision in his last 11 starts), the Nationals knocked around Tony Peña in the eighth and Jorge Julio in the ninth before watching Brandon Lyon miss the strike zone on 16 of 23 pitches.
"You've got to keep playing, keeping pushing, grinding it out and just trying to get people on base," Johnson said.
Traber didn't give the Nationals much of a chance in the early going. He survived two base runners with two outs in the first, but not in the second. A hit batsman, a fielder's choice, a dribbler toward third that Traber couldn't handle and a sacrifice bunt by Batista set the stage for Young, who rocketed a double over center fielder Ryan Church.
After the Nationals cut the deficit to 2-1, Young tagged Traber again with two runners in scoring position, this time in the fourth inning, a one-out liner beyond Soriano's reach and to the left field wall for a two-run double.
An inning later, Robinson had seen enough. "They had a lot of good swings at him," Robinson said.
Arizona expanded the lead to 6-1 against Chris Schroder in the eighth on Carlos Quentin's homer and Young's sacrifice fly, but when Batista left, the Nationals began to stir. Church's two-out homer to right-center followed Johnson's double and Kearns's walk.
Then in the ninth, Julio walked Bernie Castro on four pitches before striking out pinch hitter Robert Fick, bringing up Soriano, who smashed a 1-0 inside fastball over the left field wall. It was Soriano's 44th homer, matching Vladimir Guerrero's total with Montreal in 2000 for most in a season in franchise history.
The game-winner arrived in the 11th when Lyon, Arizona's fifth pitcher, loaded the bases on walks, including an intentional pass to Soriano. Zimmerman patiently waited on breaking balls before drawing the clinching walk on a 3-2 pitch, sparking a modest celebration from the small gathering that had endured the 3-hour 37-minute game.
Coupled with Thursday's comeback win, Washington won consecutive games after trailing by two runs in the ninth for the first time in franchise history.
"It's kind of difficult to get yourself into it and into the mood and the feel," Robinson said of the peaceful setting. "It was almost like an exhibition game. It was a little tough."