By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
MIAMI, Sept. 10 -- Isolated howls or cheers occasionally sprang from the crowd before fading into all of those empty, plastic seats. Individual clapping could be heard. The organist, for the most part, didn't even bother to try to entertain. Several vast sections were dotted with fewer than a dozen spectators.
And that was before the rain came. Then nearly everybody fled.
In what can only be described as the polar opposite of a playoff atmosphere, the Washington Nationals defeated the Florida Marlins, 5-4, Monday in front of a crowd of perhaps 1,200, which dwindled to several dozen after a 40-minute rain delay in the seventh inning.
Those who ignored the dark clouds and the apparent lack of cachet of the event at Dolphin Stadium witnessed not a pennant race, of course, but a battle to stay out of the basement of the National League East. A hard fight for fourth place.
The Nationals, now four games ahead of Florida, played as if the result mattered more than the empty seats -- or standings -- suggested, at least before the showers flooded the stadium. Their effort was enough to secure the season series and their fourth straight victory against Florida in the last eight days.
"It's kind of a mini-victory to us," Nationals starter Shawn Hill said. "It's big to everyone in here. All the projections were that we were supposed to lose 100 games, all that stuff. To be able to do what we're doing, not finish last in our division, it's a big accomplishment."
Powered by stellar pitching from Hill (4-3), who lowered his earned run average to 2.87, and two home runs from left fielder Wily Mo Peña, the Nationals built a 4-1 lead against troubled Marlins starter Scott Olsen (9-13), whose performance was as up-and-down as his tumultuous season has been. Peña, acquired from Boston last month, had three hits, including his sixth and seventh home runs for the Nationals.
The lead Hill fashioned, which grew to 5-2 before rain swamped the field, helped Washington withstand a post-delay collapse by reliever Jesus Colome. He allowed a towering two-run home run to Mike Jacobs in the seventh that brought Florida within one.
Early in the night, Hill dominated Florida's lineup, allowing six hits in six innings with one earned run. Other than giving up a fourth-inning solo home run to second baseman Dan Uggla, who tallied his 29th of the season, Hill made few mistakes. He got double-play balls and strikeouts when he needed them. He walked nobody.
The other run he allowed came on an error by shortstop Felipe Lopez, who threw wide of first baseman Dmitri Young as Marlins outfielder Cody Ross rounded third and cruised home.
"He did a tremendous job," Nationals Manager Manny Acta said. "Too bad, because of the rain delay, we couldn't keep him out there. . . . He kept those guys off balance with his slider today."
Olsen, meantime, wore the bill of his cap low over his eyes and struck out seven in five innings. But when he wasn't overwhelming Nationals hitters, he was succumbing to them. He allowed seven hits, walked five and gave up the two home runs to Peña.
Olsen's sketchy performance reflected a season in which he flashed his middle finger to fans in Milwaukee, scuffled with teammate Sergio Mitre in the dugout and -- almost immediately after returning from a three-game suspension -- got charged with driving while intoxicated and disorderly conduct. (The incident included his resisting arrest by sitting in a lawn chair in front of his house and fighting with police.)
Marlins reliever Harvey Garcia didn't fare much better than Olsen, allowing Austin Kearns to crush a ball to center field in the sixth inning that drove in one run -- Nook Logan -- and nearly another; Lopez, however, was thrown out on a close play at the plate.
With Washington trying to extend its 5-2 lead in the seventh, Marlins third baseman Miguel Cabrera lost a pop fly -- in the rain. He could not see it and made no play on the ball. Minutes later, the umpires called the delay.
When play resumed, Hill finally got a seat on the bench. In the Marlins' half of the inning, Colome hit the first batter he faced, Josh Willingham, then allowed the home run to Jacobs. Ross followed with a single to center field, but he was thrown out trying to stretch the play to a double. In the ninth, Chad Cordero earned his 33rd save by retiring the side in order.
"Everybody's got a little pride," Logan said. "Even though both of us are playing for next-to-last in the division, all the ballgames have been good ballgames."