Flores Helps Nationals Slam Down a Victory

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 29, 2008; 2:23 AM

SAN DIEGO, May 28 -- Painkillers supplied the first kind of assistance. A grand slam supplied the second. And both helped the Washington Nationals end a two-game losing streak Wednesday night.

By the time the Nationals returned to the clubhouse Wednesday night after their 6-4 victory against San Diego at Petco Park, both starting pitcher Odalis Pérez and catcher Jesús Flores could laugh about the various forms of relief. The pills Pérez took in the afternoon, hours after a morning-long emergency root canal, lent him the strength to last 6 1/3 innings and allow only three runs. The grand slam Flores hit in the fourth worked as the perfect supplement, enabling Pérez some breathing room and, later, giving a shaky Washington bullpen a necessary margin for error.

Before Pérez gave his team any relief, he was only worrying about relief for himself. One day earlier, as the Nationals lost to the Padres, pain on the left side of Pérez 's jaw intensified, becoming far worse than the nagging ache he'd felt for the previous 10 days. Finally, at 1 a.m. Wednesday morning, Pérez tried to telephone a dentist. He wanted immediate help, a 24-hour dental service.

But he found nothing.

He couldn't sleep.

"Thoroughly bad-bad-bad," he called the pain. From 1 a.m. until 6 a.m., he stayed awake in his hotel room and watched SportsCenter. He caught two hours of sleep before mandatory wake up, and mercifully, took a morning trip to the dentist for a root canal procedure.

"The guy had a root canal this morning and went out there and battled for us," Manager Manny Acta said. "He gave us a great effort. It shows a lot going out there for us."

Even while warming up in the bullpen before his start, Pérez had doubts. The painkillers had made him groggy.

"Like I said, I didn't know if I would be able to go two or three innings," said Pérez, who scattered six hits and left with a 6-2 lead. "I was weak. Even when I was warming up, it was like five or ten pitches -- the last five or ten pitches, I said, OK, I'll go out and pitch. The medication, that is strong. If you don't eat a good food or something it's going to eat you up."

Thankfully for Pérez, who lacked his usual velocity, the Nationals found a secondary antidote, this one for a previously unproductive offense. Facing San Diego starter Shawn Estes, a 35-year-old left-hander just back in the major leagues after reconstructive elbow surgery, Washington found aid for a lineup that had scored just five runs in its previous two games.

In the fourth inning, Estes lost all control of his pitches, and in turn, Flores summarily seized control of the game with a grand slam, Washington's second of the season.

The game-determining inning drew its unusual narrative in two parts, one dependent on the next. First, Estes threw four pitches at which no Washington batter dared swing. Next, Estes threw one pitch, Flores took one swing, and Washington had four runs.

Estes, making just his fourth start of the season, actually entered the fourth with no hits allowed. By that point, the Nationals had gone 11 innings in a row without scoring. But Estes was about to change those fortunes. After an Aaron Boone hit up the middle and a Dmitri Young walk, Estes threw an 0-2 fastball to Lastings Milledge that breezed past the batter's chin, flew above the catcher's glove and pounded the backstop -- a wild pitch. Boone advanced to third; Young to second.

Then, in response to his temporary loss of command, Estes lost even more.

Next pitch bounced behind Milledge.

Following pitch hit him in the foot.

Those at Petco Park watched with puzzlement.

San Diego pitching coach Darren Balseley visited the mound. Estes listened, returned to work and promptly raised the excruciating stakes. He bounced the first pitch to Flores in front of home plate. At last, the situation -- bases loaded, one out -- dictated that Estes start throwing strikes. No matter the quality. If nothing else, to ease the shame.

So with the count 1-2, Flores unloaded. The sound was a majestic crack. The ball was soon high in the thick San Diego air, then down in the left field stands. Washington had its second grand slam of the year, and a 4-0 lead. Pérez, and the relievers to follow, had some breathing room.

"That's a great feeling right there," Flores said. "He gave me a favor, giving me that fastball."

After two more runs, including a Milledge solo homer in the sixth, Acta placed the game in the hands of Washington's bullpen -- a brood of pitchers who've had their own erratic moments of late. When Pérez departed with one out in the seventh having allowed back-to-back doubles, things got interesting quickly. Brian Sanches faced two batters. One, Scott Hairston, homered to left. The next, Tadahito Iguchi, singled to right.

In a span of minutes, the Nationals lead had shrunk to 6-4. But in time to face the middle of San Diego's order, Acta handed the ball to Luis Ayala, who kept the Padres scoreless for 1 2/3. And Jon Rauch, the primary reason the Nationals are now 19-0 when leading after 8, handled responsibilities in the final inning with a 1-2-3.

"I go to the hotel now and sleep," Pérez said after that. The pain, he said, was no longer that bad.

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