By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 15, 2007
The last homestand in RFK Stadium's tenure as a baseball park began last night in a steady drizzle before a huddled-up crowd, and those who stuck around through a brief rain delay had the pleasure of witnessing what looked like would be a game-winning home run from Ryan Zimmerman, then the dismay of watching a blown save from Chad Cordero. Before too long, last night slipped into this morning, the soggy crowd of 18,568 dwindling all the while.
Finally, at 12:21 a.m., Atlanta's Jeff Francoeur lined a two-run single to right off beleaguered Nationals reliever Jesus Colome. Thus, the final homestand for this old yard began with a dragged-out clunker of an 8-5 loss, one that reached the 13th inning and lasted 5 hours 13 minutes, the longest game in Nationals' history.
By the time Francoeur laced his bases-loaded hit off Colome -- the Nationals' eighth pitcher of the night -- so much had transpired, it had almost been forgotten, not the least of which were Zimmerman's 24th homer and Cordero's ninth blown save. All this followed the Nationals' 12-inning loss in Florida on Wednesday.
"It's been a long week for us," Zimmerman said. "But you just got to do your best. You're out there to win the game. We had a couple chances but just couldn't do it."
In a way, though, a more important development occurred in the early hours of yesterday afternoon, when Justin Maxwell walked into the clubhouse and heard teammate Ryan Church call across the room, "You nervous?" Maxwell's name was in the starting lineup for the first time in the majors.
"I was like, 'What?' " Maxwell said. "He said, 'You're in there today.' "
Maxwell was in there, the Nationals' latest attempt to gauge what they have. His call-up from Class A Potomac was an experiment, and it's likely he'll begin next year at Class AA Harrisburg. But the Nationals will watch each of his at-bats here quite carefully.
"He's a tremendous athlete," Bowden said. "Off-the-charts makeup. I always bet on people. If I had to bet on a person, I'd bet on him. If I had to bet on tools, I'd bet on him."
Last night, in that first big league start, he went 1 for 3 with a single and a strikeout. From his box above home plate, Bowden watched. Zimmerman was in that position two years ago, a September call-up feeling his way, and Bowden was betting on him big-time. Last night, he was nearly a hero again.
Ronnie Belliard led off the bottom of the seventh with a single, the third of his four hits on the night. Zimmerman then crushed the first pitch he saw, a fastball away, from reliever Tyler Yates to right, a laser that sneaked into the Nationals' bullpen.
But then came an implosion by the back end of the Nationals' bullpen. Down 5-3, the Braves got a line drive from Andruw Jones off setup man Jon Rauch in the top of the eighth. The ball headed to left, where Wily Mo Pe?a played it awkwardly. Nationals Manager Manny Acta had inserted two defensive replacements -- Nook Logan in center and Robert Fick at first -- in the eighth, but didn't replace Pe?a with Ryan Langerhans until the ninth.
"We haven't played defense for Wily Mo the whole time he's been here," Acta said. "And the only reason we did it in the ninth was because Langerhans is here, and he's got to have some type of role."
Jones's ball sailed directly over Pe?a's head. Had he caught it, there would have been two outs. He didn't, it went as a double, and Jones scored on a single from Matt Diaz to make it 5-4.
That led to the disastrous ninth. Edgar Renteria hit a one-out single off Cordero's leg, and Chipper Jones followed with a double into the right field corner, scoring pinch runner Pete Orr all the way from first with the tying run.
"We had a two-run lead in the eighth inning with our two top relievers," Acta said, "and they just blew it."
Thus, a soggy, sorry start to a homestand ended in the wee hours, and a rookie outfielder made his starting debut with seven innings -- that ended up being just more than half a game.