By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 5, 2007
It is early April, long before pennants are won or seasons are lost, and the Washington Nationals preached that as they were pummeled in their first two games. But at 3:45 p.m. yesterday, Dmitri Young, all 245 pounds of him, skipped across the infield at RFK Stadium. He was met by Robert Fick, a foe in high school who long ago became a friend.
They leapt simultaneously, collided in midair, embraced. The Nationals had won just a single game. But Young and Fick, for at least a few hours, discovered glee in their own, separate swirls of struggle.
The Nationals' first victory of the season, a 7-6 win over the Florida Marlins in which they overcame a five-run deficit, ended when Young lofted a fly ball down the left field line with the score tied and the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth. With one out, Marlins left fielder Josh Willingham decided to let the ball drop, hoping against hope that it would land foul, because it certainly was deep enough to serve as a sacrifice fly.
But when the ball plopped not more than a couple feet fair, Kory Casto trotted home from third, Manny Acta's troops spilled onto the field and the bottles of Dom Perignon -- on ice in the clubhouse -- finally could pop open to celebrate the manager's first victory.
For at least a few minutes, the first two dismal days of the season -- in which the Marlins fairly embarrassed Washington -- dissolved.
"Every one of my coaches felt like a big weight was lifted off their shoulders, and my shoulders, basically," Acta said. "It's kind of fun to see the players go out there. We just snapped a two-game losing [streak] and they're celebrating like they're clinching the [National League] East."
Fick and Young perhaps were most boisterous. "Been through the thick of things" was how Young described his relationship with Fick. They are both 33, the oldest players in the clubhouse. They grew up in Southern California, Young a first-round pick out of Rio Mesa High in Oxnard, Fick down the road at Newbury Park.
They kept tabs on each other and eventually became teammates with the Detroit Tigers in 2002 before their own travails. Young's troubles last season are well documented -- charges of domestic abuse, problems with alcohol, a release by the Tigers and a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes. Fick's struggles are more private. His mother, Gloria, is dying of lung cancer in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Late last week, he flew home for a brief visit. In a way, it made things harder.
"She's doing worse than ever," Fick said yesterday. He is considering another trip home on Monday's off day. "I'm not going to make any excuses. She's what keeps me going. She's my strength."
Such strength is something the Nationals will need in droves this year. Matt Chico, a 23-year-old rookie left-hander, was welcomed to the majors by no-doubt home runs from Cody Ross, Miguel Cabrera and Mike Jacobs, the lowlights in a four-inning, six-run outing.
Thus, for the third consecutive game, the Nationals trailed by at least four runs after four. "I'm sure some people thought, 'Here we go again,' " right fielder Austin Kearns said.
But the bullpen held the game at 6-1. Washington center fielder Ryan Church then made things interesting with a two-out, three-run homer in the sixth, pulling the Nationals within 6-4.
And when the score remained that way in the ninth, and notoriously shaky Marlins closer Jorge Julio took the ball to close it out, there was the possibility, however slight, that this beaten-up crew had a chance.
"Everyone thinks we're going to lose anyway," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "So we might as well go out there and play free."
The ninth started with a double from new second baseman Ronnie Belliard. Fick followed with a hard RBI single to left to pull Washington within one. Then, something the Nationals hadn't done the first two games: execute a fundamental. Felipe Lopez bunted Fick to second, and when Casto hit what Acta called a "BB" at the feet of Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez -- a ball that caromed into center and was ruled a hit -- Fick tied the game, slapping hands with some in the crowd of 18,835 on the way back to the dugout.
When Zimmerman singled Casto to third and Kearns drew a four-pitch walk, Young had his chance. He has 10 years in the big leagues, but in February, he signed a minor league deal with the Nationals -- a chance to make the team, with no guarantees. Now he clearly is one of the guys.
"I'm a big fan of his," Church said, "just with all the crap he's been through and how he's handling himself now."
Hitting from the left side, he handled a fastball from Julio on the outside of the plate, sending it high to left. And when he finally let go of Fick, finally left the field, he raised both his fists to the crowd.
"I'm part of this team," Young said. "I'm helping this team. I'm one of 25 guys that came out here to play ball for the Washington Nationals."
For one day, in one embrace, that was enough.