By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 27, 2007
NEW YORK, Sept. 2 -- Somewhere in the deep, evil recesses of the minds of people who despise the New York Mets -- Hello, Philadelphia! -- someone might have drawn up a scenario that could have tortured all of Queens like this. It is, however, unlikely, because when the Mets awoke in September and looked at the latter part of their schedule, they must have said: "Six games against the Nationals in the last two weeks? We'll clinch it there."
But consider what has happened in those final two weeks. The Washington Nationals and Mets played six times, and the Nationals won five. The final indignity in a 10-day span full of them: Washington overcame a five-run deficit Wednesday night, using splendid relief work and a five-run fifth inning to stun the Mets, 9-6, completing a three-game sweep that could fundamentally change the October plans of so many people in Flushing.
"It just shows that we're not here just to play out the final few games," catcher Brian Schneider said. "We're going to play hard against these teams that are still in it. At the same time, we're still playing for something, too. We don't want to finish last."
The only way that happens is if Florida wins its final four games and the Nationals lose their last three. Given the events of the past three days -- capped by a game in which outfielder Ryan Church went 3 for 5 with a homer, a double and four RBI -- that seems unlikely.
"That's all that matters to us now," Manager Manny Acta said.
Combine the Nationals' spunk with the Phillies' victory over Atlanta on Wednesday night, and the Mets' lead in the National League East is down to a single game, tighter than it has been since May 16 -- when the Mets took over first, never intending to relinquish it. Both teams have four games remaining, and the Phillies' final three -- wouldn't it figure? -- are against the Nationals over the weekend in Philadelphia. That is one of two venues -- right here at Shea being the other -- where the division will be decided.
For now, though, the Nationals couldn't have been more of a factor. Wednesday, they overcame an early 5-0 deficit provided by absolutely exhausted left-hander Mike Bacsik with Church's two-run homer in the fourth, a five-run fifth inning punctuated by Wily Mo Pe¿a's two-run, go-ahead double, and then finished it with Church's two-run double in the ninth off Mets closer Billy Wagner -- who didn't have anything to close all week against Washington.
Don't look now, but Church -- for some reason, one of the most polarizing figures among Nationals' fans and officials -- has put together a nice season. He is hitting .275 with 43 doubles, 15 homers and 70 RBI, all in 466 at-bats. His double to left-center against Wagner -- one which turned a 7-6 game into a three-run lead -- was one of the finest pieces of hitting he has provided all year. Right fielder Austin Kearns, by contrast, has 16 homers and 73 RBI -- in 109 more at-bats.
Could Church be sending a message?
"I hope so," he said. "I hope they think of it that way. I do."
The Mets simultaneously are sending a message to their anxious fan base, which goes to bed every night on huge piles of the sharpest kinds of pins and needles. Manager Willie Randolph's even-keel demeanor has been under scrutiny for the better part of two weeks now, as the Mets have failed to wrap up a division title they seemed destined to win all summer. But there are warts all over the Mets -- most notably in their bullpen.
That is not the case for Washington. The Nationals' hard-working relief corps -- a group of pitchers who have logged more innings than any other bullpen in the National League this year -- came through with a performance that absolutely crippled New York. After Joel Hanrahan, making his first relief appearance of the year, allowed a run in the fourth to give the Mets a 6-2 lead, the Mets got nothing else.
The accomplishment was important enough that they are worth naming. Chris Schroder, Jonathan Albaladejo, Saul Rivera, Jon Rauch and Luis Ayala combined to allow two hits and no walks over the final four innings.
"Can't say enough," Acta said. "That was the whole game right there."
Ayala was on only because, when the Nationals called down to get closer Chad Cordero to warm up, Cordero rose -- and promptly threw up in his glove. Save the jokes about how that's what the Mets were doing all week. This was a serious situation.
"It was kind of weird," Acta said.
Cordero said he hadn't felt bad all day. But when he rose to warm up, he felt something. Some vomit escaped. "I grabbed my glove," he said, "and everything else came out."
So Ayala entered instead. And with the dangerous part of the Mets' order up -- including Carlos Beltran, who homered twice against Bacsik way back when the Mets built the lead -- Ayala handled himself like a closer. In a tenuous 10-9 victory Tuesday, Cordero had failed to retire any of the three hitters he faced, and had to be bailed out by Rauch.
Not Ayala, who went 1-2-3 against Luis Castillo, David Wright and Beltran. With that, the boos rained down on the home team at Shea, and the Nationals' impact on this pennant race was secure.
"It's only going to get better," Church said. "We're going to Philly, and it's going to be crazy there. I can't wait."