No Steal for Soriano, But Win for Nationals

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 13, 2006

PHOENIX, Sept. 12 -- When Jason Bergmann came out of the game, the prospects for the Washington Nationals' second victory in a row were slim.

It was only the fourth inning, three runs were already in, and the Nationals were without three of the relievers who could loosely be categorized as "reliable" -- Jon Rauch, Saul Rivera and Ryan Wagner, who all needed a rest. "All you can do is hope," Manager Frank Robinson said.

Hope, in this instance, translated into a victory.

Five Washington relievers combined to give up one run over six innings, allowing the Nationals to win 5-4 over the Arizona Diamondbacks on Nook Logan's tie-breaking single in the eighth inning.

"We all want to go out there and finish on a good note," said closer Chad Cordero, who got the final four outs for his 26th save. "We want to prove we aren't as bad as we may have pitched over [the course of] the season."

Though the main reason to watch the Nationals these days -- Alfonso Soriano's pursuit of a 40-homer, 40-steal season -- stalled Tuesday night when Soriano was thrown out trying to steal third in the seventh inning, Washington felt better after coming from behind yet again. The Nationals have now trailed in eight of their last nine victories, and there is a thread to it all. The starting pitching has been horrendous, and it has put pressure on the offense.

Tuesday night, Bergmann couldn't complete four innings for the second straight start. In fact, a Google search for the phrase "Nationals starter failed to complete four innings" generates 617,000 hits. Yet it only feels like it has happened that often.

Bergmann's big inning was the second, when he gave up a two-run triple to rookie shortstop Stephen Drew and a sacrifice fly to the opposing pitcher, Miguel Batista, spotting Arizona a 3-0 lead.

In the fourth, though, Ryan Zimmerman drew a one-out walk off Batista, and Nick Johnson followed by drilling an 0-1 offering to right for the Nationals' first hit -- a two-run homer that cut the deficit to one. The blast, Johnson's 22nd of the year, gave the first baseman a career-high 75 RBI, meaning he has set personal bests in every meaningful offensive category this season.

Bergmann, though, couldn't shut down the Diamondbacks in the very next inning. "Terrible," he said. "I had an awful day today."

Chad Tracy and Carlos Quentin led off the bottom of the fourth with a double and a single, respectively, and Robinson didn't want the game to get more out of hand. He summoned left-hander Mike O'Connor. Bergmann lasted three innings and two batters.

That, though, merely meant he fit right in with the rest of the Washington starters on this road trip. The blow-by-blow of the trek, going backwards from last night: Bergmann, three-plus innings; Billy Traber, three-plus innings; Pedro Astacio, 2-1/3 innings; Ramon Ortiz (the iron man of the bunch), 6-1/3 innings; Armas, 5-2/3 innings; and Bergmann, 3-2/3 innings. It is little wonder, then, that the Chicago Cubs are the only National League team who has received fewer innings from their starting pitchers.

In this case, though, Robinson's quick hook worked.

"He had to win a ballgame," Bergmann said. O'Connor got Drew to fly out to short left -- and Soriano, who had racked up his 21st outfield assist of the year by throwing out Luis Gonzalez at third in the third inning, set himself up nicely, preventing Tracy from breaking from third.

The Nationals then followed with one of their best defensive plays of the year. Batista, the opposing pitcher, tried to lay down a bunt. "You have to think about it," catcher Brian Schneider said, "before it happens."

So when Batista popped the ball up, Schneider was ready. With the ball in the air, Schneider quickly analyzed the situation. Batista stood at the plate, not running toward first. That was the key. Tracy was stuck on second, Quentin on first, unable to go anywhere should Schneider catch the ball.

The results of the analysis? Schneider let the ball drop, scooped it up, and threw to second to start an inning-ending double play. "A very heady play," Robinson called it.

Buoyed, perhaps, by that bit of good karma, Schneider was in the middle of the Nationals' game-tying rally in the sixth, reaching on a fielder's choice on which Batista made an ill-advised and errant throw to third base in an attempt to nail Austin Kearns. The throw went astray, and Kearns came around to complete a two-run inning, pulling the Nationals even at 4-4.

Schneider, too, inadvertently started the rally that led to the winning run. With one out in the eighth, he reached second on an error by second baseman Orlando Hudson. Logan -- who had been talked to by Robinson after he was picked off first in the sixth -- followed with a single up the middle, scoring Schneider. "I'm just learning, learning what they want me to do," Logan said. "It was a good talk, actually." And it helped lead to a victory, but only because the bullpen came through. O'Connor -- who allowed the only run given up by a Washington reliever, a solo homer from Hudson -- gave way to Chris Schroder, who gave way to Felix Rodriguez who gave way to Chris Booker, who gave up a single but got two outs in the eighth.

With that, Robinson called on Cordero, who has been effective since the all-star break, his fastball seemingly a tad more lively. "I don't know why that is," he said. But here it was again. He struck out Quentin to end the eighth, and then retired the side in order in the ninth, his 13th save in 14 opportunities since the break, lowering his ERA in that time to 1.80 -- and providing an anchor to a bullpen that badly needed a night like that.

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