Bergmann, Nats Escape From N.Y.

Felipe López is congratulated after his sacrifice fly in the eighth inning.
Felipe López is congratulated after his sacrifice fly in the eighth inning. (By Al Bello -- Getty Images)
By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 16, 2008

NEW YORK, May 15 -- Seven innings gone, outcome undecided, Washington Nationals pitcher Jason Bergmann exited a ballgame in which he had done everything possible to merit a victory. Manager Manny Acta greeted his recently recalled starting pitcher at the top of the dugout steps and said, simply, "Great job." Bergmann didn't even bother requesting the chance to extend his shutout.

Instead, he returned to his customary seat -- right in the middle of the Nationals' bench -- and watched the theatrics necessary to preserve his first win of the year. Eventually, the Nationals escaped Shea Stadium on Thursday with a 1-0 victory against the New York Mets, their third win in the four-game series. But to earn the small print in the box score -- Bergmann (1-1) -- the Nationals needed an eighth-inning double, one sacrifice bunt, one sacrifice fly, two relief pitchers, one sensational diving catch and two unorthodox double plays.

For Bergmann to earn his first win of 2008, though, he didn't just need the delicate equation of those final two innings. He needed to endure some setbacks and regain some composure.

Bergmann, 26, began the season in the Nationals' starting rotation. After three starts, an 11.68 ERA stamped his ticket to Class AAA Columbus. There, he worked with Clippers pitching coach Steve McCatty to redevelop his mechanics -- this time using more of his lower body. In his final three minor league starts, he looked much like the pitcher who flourished last season with Washington, going 6-6 in 21 starts.

On Tuesday night, while Bergmann ate in the Clippers' clubhouse, Class AAA Manager Tim Foli approached him and said, smiling: "Get out of here. You're in the big leagues."

This time, by striking out nine, and by refusing to crumble as Mets starter Mike Pelfrey held the Nationals hitless through six, Bergmann earned himself several more big league starts, at least. Acta called his outing "tremendous." Bergmann allowed this much: "I'm excited to be back."

The scoreless game he exited became a 1-0 game he could win thanks to a series of fundamental plays in the top of the eighth. Catcher Jesús Flores pounded a leadoff double off the left field wall. Willie Harris, pinch-hitting for Bergmann, angled a textbook bunt down the first base line, advancing Flores to third. When Felipe López swatted a sacrifice fly to left, the Nationals gained a 1-0 lead.

They would spend the rest of the afternoon realizing just how narrow that margin really was.

"Those last few innings were a lot of fun, as one-run games should be," Bergmann said.

By the bottom of the eighth, Bergmann had ducked into the team training room for a quick weightlifting exercise -- customary work for a departed starting pitcher. Bergmann tried not to let himself feel nervous about the goings-on outside, where his replacement in the lineup (Harris) now played left, and his replacement on the mound (Luis Ayala) now held the setup duties.

It's been a good game so far, Bergmann reminded himself, and there's no reason that can't continue.

When José Reyes singled to start the bottom of the eighth, 51,769 stood, anticipating a comeback. Somehow, the Nationals erased the danger using three unlikely numbers -- 5-3-6 -- in about five crazy seconds. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman fielded Luis Castillo's bunt and threw to first baseman Aaron Boone, good for one out. At that moment, Reyes saw third base nearly uncovered and tried to advance.

Shortstop Cristian Guzmán broke from his position and followed Reyes down the base path, a step ahead the entire time. He'd botched a similar play earlier this season against Philadelphia, losingmail track of Jimmy Rollins. "I was thinking about Rollins," Guzman later said. "That's why I went to third base."

Boone's quarterback throw across the diamond hit Guzman in stride. In an instant it happened: a swipe tag, an umpire's out signal, a tying run up in smoke.

"Spectacular defense," Bergmann said. "Boonie -- heads up. And Guzmán getting over there to double off the guy at third base. You have to give it to our guys."

Jon Rauch closed it out in the ninth, but not before allowing the tying run to reach third -- and not before the tension coaxed Bergmann out from the dugout and up onto a second step, where he perched next to a water cooler.

The last three outs required a tightrope walk of plays, both precarious and exceptional. Left fielder Harris played Houdini by sprinting some 100 feet toward the foul line and diving under Ryan Church's fly ball. "I had no idea I was going to catch it," Harris said.

And later, with Carlos Beltrán on third -- he had singled, stolen second and advanced on Flores's throwing error -- Rauch recorded the final two outs when the winning run, Carlos Delgado, pinged a liner to first base.

Boone caught it and threw to third for the game-ending double play. Beltran, caught halfway to home, walked off the field. Bergmann accepted handshakes.

"Hey," Bergmann said afterward. "We scored one run on them, but that was one more run than they did."

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