By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
NEW YORK, May 12 -- Shea Stadium, decrepit and months from demolition, deserved a game like this one -- filled with both trash and trash talk. Shea's walkways around the visitor's clubhouse are a dump of discarded energy drinks and tangled extension cords. On Monday, a 20-mph wind ripped in from the outfield, at one point causing a garbage bag to tumble-weed across the infield.
In a strange way, though, the Washington Nationals used those aesthetics -- on a night when the game itself resembled the setting -- to remedy one of their most miserable stretches of the season. The Nationals defeated New York, 10-4, in large part because the Mets' sloppiness exceeded their own.
Two Mets errors led to two Nationals unearned runs.
New York starting pitcher Nelson Figueroa, over five innings and 108 pitches, walked five batters and hit two more.
And even after exiting the game, Figueroa decided to attempt a few more shots, upset about what he felt was exaggerated cheering from the Nationals' dugout.
"They were cheerleading in the dugout like a bunch of softball girls," Figueroa said. "I'm a professional just like anybody else. I take huge offense to that. If that's what a last-place team needs to do to fire themselves up, so be it. They could show a little more class, a little more professionalism now that they won tonight, but in the long run, they're still who they are."
The belabored play-by-play that filled this game's 3 hours 15 minutes explained part of Figueroa's postgame disposition. Most of his time on the mound was serenaded by the jeering of 45,321. The Mets right-hander allowed three hits to Washington pitcher Odalis Pérez and a decisive sixth-inning two-run double to Lastings Milledge, who broke from what Manager Manny Acta called "a tailspin."
The Nationals had arrived in New York needing any sort of win, in-artful or not. Since May 4, they had dropped from four games out of first to a season-high 8 1/2 . In the weekend series against the Marlins, they got blown out and got their hearts broken. And the only thing worse than extending a losing streak is doing so at Shea on a night when the temperature fell well below 50 degrees.
So the Nationals found an unlikely formula to avoid such misery, and it included both a starting pitcher, Pérez, who had earned his last win since Aug. 18, and a reserve outfielder, Elijah Dukes, who decided around the third inning to start some clapping from his dugout seat.
"Just changing the feeling in the clubhouse," Dukes said. "It was funny, though. Kind of softballish."
"What [were] we going to do?" Milledge said. "We're not going to cater to anybody on the opposition. We're not going to cater to him or anybody else. We've been down the last couple days. We got to get something going."
Pérez took care of things on his end, too, surviving 6 1/3 innings filled with 11 hits, two of them home runs. This season, the left-hander had gained a reputation for reliability, with a 3.43 ERA. But he'd also found a penchant for no-decisions. In his last four starts, he'd departed games with scores of 1-1, 3-2, 2-2 and 3-3.
"It was a battle to stay in there for six innings," Pérez said. "I had a chance to get through a tough time, and I did, and I stayed in long enough to get the 'W.' "
Even in this game's early stages, the Nationals found ways to take advantage of Mets miscues. Washington's third run, which tied the game at 3, was unearned and unsightly. With Rob Mackowiak on third because of a walk, Washington second baseman Felipe López hit a dribbler back to the mound.
By the time Figueroa gloved the ball, Mackowiak already had broken for home, dead as a Tyson chicken.
But instead of nailing Mackowiak at the plate, Figueroa launched the ball several feet wide of his catcher, Brian Schneider. The ball rolled toward the backstop, and Mackowiak scored.
Thanks to such help, it scarcely mattered that the Nationals lacked the kind of refined baseball that typically ends losing streaks.
It scarcely mattered that a Moisés Alou pop-up fell within the unguarded first-second-right field triangle, hitting the earth as first baseman Nick Johnson covered his head with his glove. It scarcely mattered that Pérez surrendered a 430-foot home run to Mets backup second baseman Damian Easley, homer-less since last August. It scarcely mattered that Washington stranded 11 runners, or that its key offensive player was a guy who entered the season with two hits.
"A struggle," Pérez called the game.