By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 1, 2008
A couple of weeks ago, when April was at its cruelest, the events of yesterday would have fairly crippled the Washington Nationals. They got one of their best starting pitching performances of the year from right-hander Shawn Hill but managed just three hits through nine innings. They pushed it to extras and loaded the bases with one out, but Felipe López bounced into a double play in the 10th. Two innings later, Wil Nieves missed a sign, but the subsequent play worked out just fine.
What resulted, somehow, was perhaps all the breaks that worked against them over a miserable first three weeks of the season coming back in their favor. The final: Nationals 3, Atlanta Braves 2, with the tying run coming on a bases-loaded walk in the 12th, the winning run one pitch later on López's fly ball single to left.
"I wanted another chance," López said of his botched opportunity in the 10th, when with one out and the bases loaded he tapped a ball back to the pitcher and then didn't sprint to first base. The resulting double play ended the inning and might have signaled a loss.
But on a day in which the Nationals found out they would be without their closer for perhaps six weeks -- Chad Cordero tore a muscle in the back of his right shoulder -- they somehow found their footing. The Nationals have won three straight for the first time since starting 3-0. They swept a two-game set from the Braves to take their second straight series. And since reaching their nadir at 5-15 on April 21, they have won six of eight.
However that happened, it has brought a markedly different atmosphere to the home clubhouse at Nationals Park.
"The feeling's obviously better," right fielder Austin Kearns said. "You don't walk in here and it's just quiet."
Even on a day when they overcame an extra-inning deficit by grinding out at-bats in the 12th, Hill's performance was likely the most encouraging sign. In two previous starts this season, he hadn't been able to record an out in the sixth. "It's still spring training for him," pitching coach Randy St. Claire said, because Hill has battled forearm pain since the team convened in Florida in mid-February.
Thus, his eight-inning, four-hit, one-run outing was, perhaps, an indication that his arm problems are manageable. He needed only 94 pitches to plow through his eight innings, and the Braves might not have scored had Yunel Escobar not blooped a two-out, RBI single to right in the sixth. "That's pretty strong," Kearns said.
Hill, though, is cautious about giving himself anything that resembles a thumbs up. His breaking pitches still aren't sharp, he said. But he did allow one favorable assessment.
"I pitched more," he said, "as opposed to the last two games, just trying to throw."
Still, the Nationals could do almost nothing with Braves rookie Jair Jurrjens, so they went to extras. Their best chance came in the 10th against reliever Manny Acosta. Bases loaded, one out, López at the plate. Acosta threw a sinking fastball. López wanted something up in the zone, something to hit to the outfield. He swung anyway. Double play.
"It was a little frustrating," López said, "because that's not the pitch I was looking for."
So when the Braves scored a run off Washington reliever Saúl Rivera in the top of the 12th -- Mark Kotsay hit a two-out single that drove in pinch runner Martin Prado from second -- the Nationals could well have been headed for a loss. But Atlanta is so strapped by injuries in its bullpen that Manager Bobby Cox, with two outs and two on later in the 12th, sent Acosta up to hit, not only conceding his best chance at an insurance run, but meaning Acosta would pitch a third inning.
"He was our guy," Cox said.
By the end of the inning, he was the loser. Kearns got down 0-2, but Acosta let him get away, a walk. Willie Harris then smashed a ball to Prado at first base. Catch it, step on the bag, and it's an easy double play. But the ball got through Prado's mitt, and everyone was safe.
That brought up Nieves, whose job was simple: Bunt. Twice, he fouled it off. Manager Manny Acta took off the bunt with two strikes. Nieves didn't see it. "Destiny, baby," Acta said. Nieves bunted back to Acosta, who muffed it for an error, loading the bases. He then walked Ronnie Belliard, forcing in the tying run, bringing up López. Cox countered with right-hander Buddy Carlyle.
"I was thinking: Get it done," López said. He did. And because of that, the Nationals won a game that, two weeks ago, would surely have been a loss.