By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 25, 2008
During his time with the Washington Nationals, Felipe López's attitude has toggled between reticent and revitalized. Last year, he sleepwalked through a summer of apparent disinterest. When he arrived at spring training, he no longer had a starting job, yet he professed a capacity to remain positive about the situation, and followed through.
Now, López is back as the starting second baseman. "I'm me again," he said late last night. For one evening, at least, he was more than that. With the clubhouse in dire need of a lift, López delivered by driving in six runs, the last four on a tiebreaking grand slam in the sixth, providing a 10-5 victory over the New York Mets that temporarily stabilized a fragile situation.
That López would be the one to provide stability is somewhat staggering. When he failed to beat out Ronnie Belliard for the starting second baseman's job in spring training, his history might have suggested that he would sulk on the bench. He didn't, and since Manager Manny Acta inserted him into the starting lineup seven games ago, he is hitting .357 (10 for 28) and has injected a bit of energy into a group that badly needed it.
"Even when he didn't win the job out of spring training, he never put his head down," Acta said. "He worked hard, had a good attitude. He knew it from the get-go. I told him: 'It's a long season. It doesn't mean you can't work yourself back into the lineup.' "
Now that he has, he's delivering. His bases-loaded, two-run single in the fifth helped the Nationals overcome a 3-0 deficit. His first homer of the year -- and fourth career grand slam -- came off Mets reliever Aaron Heilman with a full count the following inning. He left the batter's box with a hop, and he punctuated it with an emphatic celebration at home plate, where he was greeted by teammates and cheered by a crowd of 29,750.
All that helped overshadow the myriad issues surrounding the Nationals. Acta knows how his team, which has the worst record in baseball, is being monitored. The record shows the Nationals won for the fourth time in 20 games last night. Acta prefers a different perspective.
"We have won two out of the last three, okay?" he said.
That much is true. But had López not come through, and had the Nationals not tacked on three more runs in the seventh, the day might have been remembered for other transgressions. The original lineup card posted on the wall of the home clubhouse at Nationals Park included Lastings Milledge in center field, hitting fifth. When the Nationals finished batting practice, Milledge had been replaced by Willie Harris in center, and Acta had juggled the lineup.
"He showed up late to work," Acta said. Simple as that. The manager said he has three rules that pertain to everyone, from a star to the 25th man. Milledge, too, occasionally has seemed disengaged in the clubhouse, in one case on the recent road trip talking on his cellphone from the moment he walked in the clubhouse -- the last player to arrive -- to the point he was fully dressed in his uniform, some 20 minutes later.
Milledge declined to address the reason for his tardiness. "It was something I couldn't control," he said. "I take full responsibility."
Acta was adamant that Milledge be held responsible.
"Go ask Jim Bowden, Stan Kasten and the Lerners what would they do to me if I showed up late for work," Acta said. "I told you guys that he's got things to learn, and some of that is being able to know how to handle 24 hours in the day."
By the end of the day, what mattered was how Milledge handled the bat when he did get his chance. The decisive sixth inning began with singles from Wily Mo Peña and Aaron Boone. With two outs and runners on second and third, Acta sent up Milledge. Mets Manager Willie Randolph called on Heilman, the right-hander. Though Acta had left-handed hitters Nick Johnson, Rob Mackowiak and Johnny Estrada on his bench, he stuck with Milledge.
He was nearly rewarded in a big way, because Milledge scalded one pitch down the line in left. It landed foul, but barely. But with a full count, he drew a walk, bringing López to the plate with the bases full.
"I was in the game the whole game," Milledge said. "I knew I'd be called upon, so I came up there and had a big AB."
As Acta said: "He had his head in the game and had a great at-bat for us. That's part of the learning process."
It would have meant little had López not come through. He fouled off a pair of pitches from Heilman, but eventually worked the count full. Heilman then came with a change-up. López, who had just two RBI on the season headed into the game, unloaded on it, driving it to right.
"Coming from RFK [Stadium] last year," he said, "I was like, 'Wait.' "
But Mets right fielder Ryan Church drifted back and eventually ran out of room. The ball settled over the wall, just the fourth home run for the Nationals at their new park, the first grand slam, giving Washington a 7-3 lead.
Afterward, López stood in his home clubhouse. He did not sulk. Rather, he stood tall, another step in an image overhaul nearly unimaginable a year ago.
"You can have the whole world believe in you, and if you don't believe in yourself, it doesn't matter," López said. "I believe in my abilities, and I'm very positive."