By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 10, 2007
ATLANTA, Sept. 9 -- With a pair of forgettable games immediately behind them, the Washington Nationals tried to right things Sunday by inserting a leadoff hitter with a .154 average, playing a center fielder who is struggling to become accustomed to a part-time role, and asking a pitcher who had just two major league appearances since 2004 to record the pivotal out of the game.
So in a season in which the Nationals have perhaps best defined themselves with a refusal to out-and-out collapse, reserve infielder D'Angelo Jimenez came through with three hits and three RBI, former regular Ryan Church drilled the game-changing three-run homer and September call-up Arnie Mu?oz got the one out necessary with the bases loaded. Each player added something essential to a badly needed 7-4 victory over the Atlanta Braves, one that, for now, eclipsed those miserable losses.
"We played real sloppy the last couple days," said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who added a solo homer in the ninth. "So to be able to come through and get a win salvages something here."
The sloppiness that defined blowout losses Friday and Saturday -- games in which the Nationals committed eight errors and were outscored 16-3 -- was completely gone Sunday, and that allowed right-hander Jason Bergmann to relax and pitch effectively over his six innings. In fact, there was plenty of credit to spread around afterward. Every Washington position player who started had at least one hit, and four relievers allowed just one run in relief of Bergmann.
Considering the Nationals want to keep distance between themselves and the last-place Florida Marlins -- they now lead by three games, and play Florida for the final three times beginning Monday -- every part of this effort was essential.
"It's always good to win on getaway days," Manager Manny Acta said, "because those flights seem to be forever when you lose."
Offensively, Jimenez and Church helped make that flight a bit shorter. Jimenez played shortstop in place of Felipe Lopez and drove in Washington's first run with a single in the third, drilled an RBI double in the seventh and added another insurance run with a run-scoring single in the eighth. This from a 29-year-old veteran who has languished on the Nationals' bench, starting just nine games all year.
"It's been tough, but sometimes you have to learn," Jimenez said. "And I've been learning."
Acta, for one, has been surprised by Jimenez's struggle to adjust to a part-time role. Acta watched the former New York Yankees prospect win batting titles during winter ball in the Dominican Republic. Coming into this year, Jimenez was a .264 career hitter with a respectable .349 on-base percentage. Yet before Sunday, his last game with three RBI was Aug. 22, 2004, when he was playing for Cincinnati.
"This guy can hit," Acta said. "You look at his numbers. This guy hit .368 in Triple A [before he was called up earlier this year]. It wasn't .301 or .299 -- .368. But it's been rough for him making the adjustments coming off the bench."
Church is enduring the same process. Before the Nationals traded for outfielder Wily Mo Pe?a last month, Church started 111 of the club's 122 games. Since then, he has started eight times in 21 games.
"You got to take advantage of the opportunity," Church said Sunday, "because you don't know how many times you're going to get it."
Initially, though, Church flailed against Braves starter Lance Cormier. By his own admission, he "tried to crush" an 0-2 curveball in his first at-bat and struck out. The next at-bat, Cormier threw the same pitch. Again, a strikeout.
His third chance was the most important. With the Braves leading 3-1 on the strength of Chipper Jones's two-run homer off Bergmann, Church came up with one out and runners on second and third in the sixth. He worked the count full. And he thought back to his previous at-bats.
"I knew he was going to throw it," he said. "It was funny. It took nine of 'em to freakin' finally get it. I was being stupid the first two at-bats."
He got the curveball, and he drove it to center, where it sailed out for the three-run homer that gave the Nationals their first lead of the series, 4-3. After Jimenez's double in the seventh made it 5-3, there was just one truly anxious moment.
That came in the bottom of the seventh. Right-hander Luis Ayala allowed two singles to start the inning, got two outs. With men on second and third, he faced Edgar Renteria. He missed with his first two pitches, then had a borderline fastball called outside for ball three. He looked disgusted at the call.
So here came Acta with a message. "If you lose your cool," Acta said, "then you're going to leave a pitch where you might want it back."
Ayala walked Renteria, loading the bases. That put Mu?oz in the game to turn around the switch-hitting Jones -- who might have won the game.
"In winter ball," he said, "I used to pitch in those situations."
So he treated it the same way. Two breaking balls to keep Jones off-balance, then a fastball away. He got Jones to ground it to short. "The out of the game," Acta said.
An out the Nationals badly needed in a game they needed just as much. When Jones hit the ball, Jimenez fielded it cleanly, flipping to second for the force play. They escaped the jam, won the game, and got out of Atlanta, staving off collapse yet again.