After Blowing Early Lead, Nats Relish a Wild Finish

The Nationals' Ryan Church, who went 0 for 4, drives in run in the fifth on an error by Pittsburgh shortstop Jack Wilson.
The Nationals' Ryan Church, who went 0 for 4, drives in run in the fifth on an error by Pittsburgh shortstop Jack Wilson. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 7, 2007

There was a time when the thought of Cristian Guzman being the catalyst for a game-saving rally would have sounded absurd to fans of the Washington Nationals. Not the Guzman of 2005, the big-money, big-bust free agent, the guy who needed a scalding September just to hit .219. Not even the Guzman of early this spring, the guy who vowed to be a different player after he sat out 2006 with a shoulder injury -- but then strained his hamstring on Opening Day, missing a month.

Last night, though, he pounced on an opportunity to turn what might have been a depressing loss into a feel-good win. He singled with one out in the bottom of the ninth, then scampered home from third on a bases-loaded wild pitch that brought the Nationals a 6-5 victory, one in which they took a four-run lead, blew it with a messy eighth, then won it in strange fashion.

No winning hit? No real hero? No matter. The Nationals needed to snap a three-game losing streak and give themselves the opportunity to finish off a nine-game homestand today with momentum, so they happily surrounded Guzman in a bit of an odd mob after he popped up from the dirt with the winning run.

"Every time we win, we [are] happy," he said. "That's the same."

Yet thus far, this is an entirely different season for Guzman. Put aside how he ended up as the man in position to win the game when Pirates reliever Salomon Torres threw a 1-1 split-fingered fastball to Ryan Church in the dirt. Think, instead, about how Guzman has a seven-game hitting streak, during which he is 16 for 31 (.516) with eight runs scored, two doubles and two triples. His average when he takes the field for today's series finale will be .327 -- highest of his Washington tenure.

"This is the guy we knew coming in from Minnesota that we got, that everybody was expecting," Church said. "It's been unfortunate. He's been hampered by injuries, and he had a tough first year here. But as of now, he's put it all together. He's back, he's healthy -- and back to having fun. That's the 'Guz' of old."

If this version of Guzman continues to appear, he will be far better than the "Guz of old," a guy who is a .262 career hitter with a .300 on-base percentage. When he ripped his one-out single to right off Torres, it wasn't so much a shock to the crowd of 24,755 at RFK Stadium. It was just an opportunity, and the completion of a 2-for-5 night, his ninth multi-hit game in his last 13.

But much more went into this rally -- and even more went into getting to the point that it was necessary. First, the implosion. The Nationals had built a 5-1 lead, one capped by Brian Schneider's two-run single in the fifth, and appeared ready to cruise. Enter the eighth, when setup man Jon Rauch took the mound. Rauch's first move: a leadoff walk.

"I just wish I knew what the problem was, then I could fix it," Rauch said. "I can't even tell you the last time I had a 1-2-3 inning."

That would be May 17, eight appearances ago. Rauch has battled a bad blister on the bottom of his foot, one that has prevented him from straightening out his mechanics. He retired just one of the four batters he faced, and left with two men on in a 5-2 game.

Manager Manny Acta turned, at that point, to lefty Billy Traber to face the left-handed hitting Adam LaRoche. An easy choice, it would seem, because Traber had allowed just two hits in 19 at-bats by left-handed hitters. But Traber missed with two breaking pitches, threw a fastball for a strike, and then he and Schneider came back with another fastball. They wanted it to be down and away, but, as Traber said, "it was a pretty great pitch to hit."

LaRoche turned it into a game-tying three-run homer to center. Put away the rocking chair. This was going to take some work.

"Our team has shown a lot of character," Acta said, "but this one would have been a bit of a discouraging loss."

But after Guzman singled in the ninth, Ryan Zimmerman followed with a fisted roller to third off Torres. The ball spun in such a fashion that Pirates third baseman Jose Bautista had no chance to throw out Zimmerman, and there were runners on first and second.

Then, perhaps, the key at-bat. With the winning run on second, right fielder Austin Kearns laid off Torres's splitter, drawing the walk that loaded the bases.

"That's the biggest thing with everybody on our team with runners in scoring position," Kearns said. "We need to be patient and wait for something you can handle."

Kearns did, and it set up the bizarre game-winner. Church swung at one pitch, took another, and then the last one bounced away from catcher Ronny Paulino toward the Pirates dugout.

So there was Guzman, the center of attention, the center of the celebration, 2005 slipping further and further away.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company