By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 19, 2007
If there is a game going late, and the Philadelphia Phillies and Washington Nationals are on the schedule, chances are they are the teams left on the field, long after the children are in bed, the stands have emptied, the local news has started. Last year, those two clubs went to extra innings four times, including a 14-inning marathon -- and that didn't include a rain-delayed fiasco that ended after 2 a.m. last September.
But at 11:22 p.m., Felipe Lopez finally ended last night's affair, a 5-4, 13-inning victory for the Nationals that meant different things to the different dugouts. For the Nationals, Lopez's sacrifice fly that scored Chris Snelling from third meant Chad Cordero's blown save didn't matter. Moreover, that fly ball to left -- which followed Snelling's single and a scorched double from newly recalled outfielder Michael Restovich -- provided the team's fourth victory in six games, a string of well-played ballgames that seemed highly unlikely just a week ago.
For the Phillies, times got tighter, and Manager Charlie Manuel -- who had already challenged a media member to a fight Tuesday night -- headed to the clubhouse with seven losses in his last nine, now a game behind laughed-at Washington, squarely in last place in the National League East.
"I'm glad it worked out the way it did," Nationals Manager Manny Acta said.
Among the absurd elements of this one: The teams combined to go 2 for 26 with runners in scoring position, and the Nationals were hitless in their last 14 such situations. The teams used every offensive reserve except Washington catcher Jesus Flores, so many so that Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels, a budding star of a starting pitcher, was inserted as a pinch hitter in the 11th -- and was promptly walked on five pitches by Nationals reliever Jesus Colome.
And in the 12th inning, long after most of the announced crowd of 18,584 had filed out of RFK, Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard -- facing an exaggerated shift by the Nationals -- hit a ground ball to second baseman Ronnie Belliard, who threw to third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who was covering second and became the pivot man on a rare 4-5-3 double play.
How late was this? RFK's 10-foot-tall racing presidents -- usually a one-time show in the middle of the fourth inning -- appeared after the top of the 13th, an unprecedented second race of the night. (Teddy Roosevelt, once again, failed to win.) That these teams would be here late into the night wasn't surprising, but it merely lengthened an already long day for Manuel. Yesterday afternoon, Manuel spent time discussing an animated exchange he had with a Philadelphia radio host following Tuesday's loss, one in which Manuel challenged the man to a fight.
"I can honestly tell you guys, it wasn't about the game or the fact that we're losing games," Manuel said. "That had nothing to do with that. . . .
"I think that I got questioned as to who I was as a man," Manuel continued. "You know how tough I am, and the only way I know to tell you guys how tough I am is you gotta see it or witness it or feel it or whatever."
These are, undoubtedly, tough times for the Phillies. Jimmy Rollins, their shortstop, brazenly predicted over the winter that Philadelphia would be the team to beat in the National League East, tossing aside the defending division champion New York Mets and the team that won the previous 14 titles, the Atlanta Braves.
Since then, not much has gone right for the Phillies, who have the reigning MVP in Howard and a stocked starting rotation. In fact, that overflow in the rotation led to yesterday's news that Jon Lieber would move from the bullpen to the rotation, swapping places with Brett Myers, potentially the ace of the staff, but who had a 9.39 ERA through three starts.
So the questions to Manuel came furiously. "Won't this be seen as a panic move?"
Manuel rocked back and forth, remaining calm. "I think this is a way of trying to help our pitching staff," he said.
Clearly, though, game-time temperature last night was 52 degrees, but in the Phillies dugout, things are a bit warmer.
But wander across to the Nationals' dugout. This club, all of 15 games into the season, was long ago labeled the worst team in baseball, an easy observation given the starting rotation with which it entered the season, not to mention a 1-8 start.
Yet because the front office has harped on the fact that it won't spend money this year, that every move made is intended to improve a far-off future, the Nationals have adopted Acta's stance. Worry? Why?
"We really have no pressure," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "The only time we would have pressure is if we play well all year and we're in the pennant race. It's so early in the season, why should we press about anything? If you play that way, you play a lot better, and you can be a lot more successful."
The Nationals were successful last night because right-hander Jason Bergmann had his second straight solid outing, catcher Brian Schneider hit a three-run homer, and they overcame their own ineptness with runners in scoring position by getting scoreless relief from Micah Bowie, Jon Rauch, Colome, Ryan Wagner and Levale Speigner.
That helped take Cordero -- who entered the ninth with a 4-3 lead, but allowed the first two batters to hit singles -- out of his own misery.
"It helps," Cordero said. "But I still [stunk]."
For last night, though, what is expected of Cordero didn't matter. What is expected of the Nationals -- to finish in last by a mile -- didn't matter either.
"Expectations are just people's opinions, and that's it," Acta said. "Playing the game is another story."
After another long night, Manuel knows that all too well.