Nats Safely in Fourth With Fifth Straight Win
Sweep of Marlins Keeps Washington Clear of Cellar: Nationals 6, Marlins 4

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 6, 2007

The opposing pitcher threw 33 pitches, recorded two outs, walked the seventh- and eighth-place hitters with the bases loaded, fell behind the pitcher 2-0, was yanked, then tried to rip a fan off the wall in the dugout. Tim Redding, the Washington Nationals pitcher, made it to the third, but had a ball bounce sharply off his elbow, then dived to field it -- suffering an injury that will keep him out at least a week, likely more.

Through all the oddities, one element mattered most last night: The Nationals beat the Florida Marlins, 6-4, completing a three-game sweep with their fifth straight victory. Not only are the Nationals still unbeaten in September -- an uptick that followed seven losses to end August -- but they now have a three-game lead over the Marlins, who left town squarely in last place in the National League East. Never this season had the Nationals, widely predicted to finish in the cellar, been this secure in fourth.

"That's what we wanted to do," Manager Manny Acta said. "There's a lot of games left. But I'd rather have a three-game lead than no lead at all. It's going to be harder now, but we're up to the challenge."

It will be harder because the Nationals likely will be without Redding for at least two or three turns in the rotation; he'll be replaced by left-hander Mike Bacsik. Team physicians diagnosed a bruised right elbow, and he said the optimistic scenario is that he can pitch in a week. It will be harder still because 19 of the Nationals' last 22 games are against the three teams who ostensibly are still in the race for the division title -- two series each against Atlanta, Philadelphia and the New York Mets.

"It's going to be a lot of fun," said closer Chad Cordero, who allowed a pair of base runners in the ninth before striking out Dan Uggla to finish his 31st save. "We really have a chance to make it hard for some teams to make the playoffs."

Small victories for a team that, last night, notched its 63rd win -- making it impossible to lose 100 this year, as so many had forecast. Six Nationals relievers helped finish the job Redding had started, including Jonathan Albaladejo, who made his major league debut by throwing 1 2/3 scoreless innings in relief of the injured Redding, striking out the side in the fourth.

The Nationals also received a solo homer from right fielder Austin Kearns in the fifth and a pair of two-out RBI singles in the seventh -- the first from Wily Mo Pe?a to break a 4-4 tie, the second from catcher Brian Schneider to provide a two-run cushion.

But even with that bit of drama, the most curious stories came from the pitchers. Start with Sergio Mitre. The Marlins right-hander had posted an 0-3 record and 10.35 ERA over his last four starts -- and somehow was worse last night.

After allowing singles to four of the first five hitters he faced -- including a broken-bat RBI bloop to center by Ryan Church -- Mitre struck out Pe?a and appeared poised to get out of the inning with relatively little damage. But with the bases still loaded, he followed with a walk of Schneider, who entered the game hitting .230, to force in the run that made it 2-0. Worse, he followed that with a walk of substitute first baseman Robert Fick, who entered the game hitting .205, to make it 3-0.

Those sins were inexcusable. But when Mitre followed with two balls to Redding -- fastballs that weren't in the same Zip code as the plate -- Marlins Manager Fredi Gonzalez walked briskly to the mound. Before he had reached the first base line, he signaled to the bullpen. Mitre was going into the stretch before he realized time had been called, that he was about to be lifted.

Gonzalez took the ball, and reliever Daniel Barone was on his way. Mitre headed to the dugout. There, according to witnesses, he tried to remove a fan from the dugout wall. Unsuccessful in that quest, he headed to the clubhouse.

Redding kept the drama surrounding his departure confined to the field. After Jeremy Hermida doubled in a run in the third, Marlins slugger Miguel Cabrera came to the plate with the score 3-1. Acta's description of Cabrera: "Big man with power."

Cabrera scalded a ball back up the middle, and Redding turned his back. The ball smacked his right elbow, though considering the way he went after the ball as it careened toward the right side of the infield -- appearing to dive for it -- there was no way to tell he was injured by the force of the grounder, no way to tell at that point that he had the seams of the ball already branded on his elbow.

"When the ball hit me, I knew it squared me up pretty good," Redding said. "But your adrenaline and your initial pain receptors don't start firing right away."

By the time Redding reached the ball, they were firing. He lay motionless, then finally rolled over. When he left the field under his own power, he received a warm ovation from the crowd of 19,222.

"If I'm going to get back in seven to 10 days, that's unbelievable," Redding said.

Thus, despite the bizarre beginning, the Nationals had something that's starting to feel normal -- another win.

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