By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 12, 2007
MIAMI, Sept. 11 -- What occurred Tuesday night at Dolphin Stadium defied easy classification. Was it a thrilling slugfest? A migraine-inducing display of pitiable pitching? A colorful, entertaining game, or one that made you cover your eyes at the interminable dreadfulness of it all?
In any case, the Washington Nationals' 13-8 loss to the Florida Marlins offered one thing for sure: the split-second coming-out party of former University of Maryland star Justin Maxwell, whose fourth-inning, pinch-hit grand slam -- his first major league hit -- brought a blast of pure wonder into the ballpark, if only for a moment during the 3-hour 19-minute epic that featured 34 hits, 5 home runs and 13 pitchers called to duty.
It is fitting that Maxwell, called up last week from his second stint in Class A ball this summer, got his highlight-show opportunity only because both pitching staffs simultaneously crumbled. The problem surfaced when Florida leadoff hitter Hanley Ramirez pounded a 430-plus-foot home run in the first inning, and continued until after Ramirez had smashed another 430-plus-foot home run in the eighth.
"Today, we could tell from the beginning it was going to be a long day," Nationals Manager Manny Acta said. "God, I'm glad it's over."
Nationals starter Mike Bacsik didn't make it out of the third, surrendering as he did three home runs (including back-to-back shots to Mike Jacobs and Cody Ross) and eight hits as the Marlins built a 5-2 lead. "I probably would have had a bad game against the Gulf Coast Marlins the way I threw the ball tonight," Bacsik said.
Bacsik's premature departure opened the door to Maxwell a half-inning later. He was summoned to pinch-hit in the ninth spot in the order as Florida rookie starter Chris Seddon, making his first career start, tried to extricate himself from his own inning of misfortune: Nationals right fielder Austin Kearns had led off the fourth with a double into center field. Wily Mo Pe?a followed with a single, Ronnie Belliard smashed a ground-rule double and catcher Brian Schneider had drawn a walk.
With no outs and the bases full, out came Maxwell, who graduated from Maryland in 2005 with a degree in animal sciences. After looking at a called strike and fouling off a pitch, he jumped on a down-the-middle change-up that, Acta said, "probably missed [the intended] location by three feet." The ball landed over the scoreboard in left field. A Montgomery County native, Maxwell hustled with such enthusiasm around first base he nearly ran into Schneider, one of the three Nationals he drove in to give Washington a short-lived 7-5 lead.
"When I hit first base, I was just trying to make sure I didn't pass Brian Schneider," Maxwell said. "He was like, 'Get off me.' "
That was no longer a concern once everyone touched home. A fourth-round draft pick by the Nationals in 2005, Maxwell was swamped by teammates at the plate and in the dugout. Maxwell's smash, measured at 398 feet, made him the franchise's first player since 1982 to record a grand slam for his first big league hit. Pitcher Scott Sanderson was the last to do it, hitting his grand slam precisely 25 years previous.
Maxwell had hit 27 home runs with Class A Hagerstown and Potomac this summer, but none was this special.
Unsuccessful in his two previous pinch-hit appearances, Maxwell said he had sought advice from Nationals hitting coach Lenny Harris, baseball's all-time pinch-hit leader, before the game.
An official retrieved the home run ball, and Maxwell vowed to send it home to his parents.
"It's great for the kid," Acta said. "It's too bad we didn't hold the lead so he could feel like he contributed to the win."
It was in the seventh inning against the Nationals' fifth and sixth pitchers of seven overall, Chris Schroder and Jonathan Albaladejo, that Florida scored its winning runs. The Marlins' rally included four hits. It was helped by two remarkably off-line throws home -- one from shortstop Felipe Lopez, who was charged with an error, and one from Kearns, who wasn't. During the inning, Miguel Cabrera drove in the go-ahead ninth run with a bloop single, and Jacobs drove in two more with a double.
"Unfortunately, I set the tone," Bacsik said. "I didn't really get anybody out consistently. I got those guys in a nice little groove."