By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 19, 2006
How strange it was, with less than two weeks left in the regular season, to see the Atlanta Braves arrive at RFK Stadium with a losing record, no chance of winning the National League East after 14 consecutive titles and mere days from being extinguished in the wild-card race.
The Washington Nationals have endured that hopelessness for months, so when the teams got together for a makeup game in front of a quiet gathering last night, it had all the feel of a carefree September encounter.
Fittingly, drama was scarce and, other than a pinch-hit, three-run homer by former National Daryle Ward in the eighth that sealed the outcome, the announced crowd of 25,211 barely stirred during the Braves' 6-1 victory.
"You're not going to score a lot of runs every night and tonight we just didn't get anything going," Manager Frank Robinson said after his team produced just seven singles against four pitchers and left the bases loaded twice. "We just couldn't get the next hit."
Despite being in the final days of disappointing seasons, both teams were coming off successful weekends. The Nationals had taken two of three from visiting Milwaukee, highlighted by Alfonso Soriano reaching the historic 40-homer, 40-steal mark, while the Braves won their series with Florida on the strength of a remarkable five-run rally in the bottom of the 10th on Sunday.
Last night's game was not nearly as compelling.
It also lacked some star power with the absence of Atlanta's Chipper Jones -- who hit home runs on three consecutive at-bats in a game during the Braves' visit to Washington last month but now is out with a strained oblique muscle -- and the Nationals' Ryan Zimmerman, the slumping third baseman who was given a day off for only the fifth time this season.
Washington turned to right-hander Tony Armas Jr. (8-12), who has struggled to rediscover the form that made him the team's most consistent starter the first two months. He has just one victory in his last 11 outings over two months, but enjoyed five fine innings last night before getting into trouble.
"You can't ask for much more than that," Robinson said of Armas's 6 2/3 -inning, three-run performance. "We didn't do anything offensively, so he'd have to throw a shutout."
The Braves jumped ahead in the second when Andruw Jones led off with a double to the left field corner and, two outs later, scored on Willy Aybar's single.
The Nationals tied it in their half against Kyle Davies (3-5) when Jose Vidro singled, Robert Fick, starting for Brian Schneider (groin), pulled the first of his two singles into right to send Vidro to third and Nook Logan delivered a sacrifice fly.
Both pitchers escaped trouble in the fourth -- Davies got out of a bases-loaded jam when Melvin Dorta popped out -- before the Braves took the lead on Jones's two-run homer into the left field mezzanine seats.
It was his 35th of the year and 336th of his career, moving him past Hank Aaron for third most since the franchise moved to Atlanta. (He trails Dale Murphy and Chipper Jones.) Meantime, the Nationals could not get anywhere against Davies, who entered with a 7.69 ERA and threw into the sixth before departing after 95 pitches and allowing four singles.
"He challenged us and made big pitches when he needed to make big pitches," Logan said. "When he got something going, he was able to bear down and stop us."
Armas's evening ended shortly thereafter, leaving a runner on second and two outs for left-hander Billy Traber, who had been dumped from the starting rotation over the weekend. He got off to a good start in his new role, ending the minor threat by getting Adam LaRoche to fly out before being lifted for a pinch hitter in the bottom of the inning.
"When you're losing, it's tough, when you're in last place, it's tough and [Armas] has been through this before," Fick said. "He gave us a great performance. He kept us in the game. We just didn't get any key hits when we needed them."
With Davies gone, the Nationals worked on Oscar Villarreal in the seventh. They loaded the bases on a walk and a couple hits, including Logan's sixth bunt single since being acquired from Detroit on Sept. 1, but Felipe Lopez struck out swinging.
That missed opportunity cost them dearly in the eighth because, with Brett Campbell on the mound and two runners aboard, Ward bashed an 0-2 offering over the right field wall to make it 6-1.
It was Ward's first home run since the Nationals traded him for pitcher Luis Atilano on Aug. 31 and gave him nine pinch-hit homers in his career (four this year). He leads the majors with 18 pinch hits.
Said Fick, "He didn't get much playing time here, he accepted his role and look where it landed him -- on the Atlanta Braves -- and he's doing it for them now."