Milledge Caps Off A Long Night

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 11, 2008

PITTSBURGH, June 10 -- By the time Lastings Milledge stepped to the plate late Tuesday night, the Washington Nationals already had refused to make peace with losing. Already, they had wrestled free from an early deficit. They had smacked four home runs, fighting through comebacks and counter-comebacks. They had led and trailed. With all those zig-zags, they had even accomplished the rarest of feats this summer, imbuing a final inning with urgency.

Under those circumstances, the ninth-inning drama narrowed to one matchup and two men. Pittsburgh relied on Matt Capps, its closer, perfect in save situations all year. Washington relied on Milledge, 23, a .251 hitter batting third only by necessity.

They shared the spotlight for one pitch.

Capps threw a fastball; Milledge belted it into the left field seats. His fifth home run of the season, and Washington's fifth of the game, punctuated a 7-6 victory at PNC Park and perhaps the team's most charged performance of the season. It ended a four-game losing streak and demonstrated a comeback ability lacking until now.

Before Milledge's two-out, two-run homer, the Nationals had been staring at a 6-5 deficit -- a demoralizing loss. The team entered Tuesday night 0-35 when trailing after eight innings.

But not against Pittsburgh. With two outs in the ninth and nobody on base, Elijah Dukes doubled to center field. Milledge had faced Capps just once before, but he knew the scouting report -- which Manager Manny Acta emphasized before the ninth. Capps throws hard, early strikes. He's aggressive. He necessitates swings early in the count.

"You don't want to fall behind against a guy with that kind of stuff," Acta said.

So Milledge made up his mind. He wanted to reverse the game's tenor in the most emphatic way possible.

"One swing, one swing only," Milledge said. "He's an aggressive guy. I was going for it."

A home run, he was asked?

"Yeah, definitely," he said. "You know the guys you can do that with."

After Milledge rounded the bases, he touched home, performed a half dance step and pointed each hand to the sky. He slapped hands with Dukes. By the time Jon Rauch set down the Pirates in the bottom of the ninth for his 13th save, that moment had turned into this game's hallmark, one that flip-flopped all emotions.

"This is how careers are started," Dmitri Young said, referring to the young players at its center. "You get key hits and go from there."

"I had my stuff, they just beat me," said Capps (0-1). "I left the pitch up and over the plate. It stinks to lose like that. I let down the other 24 guys in uniform."

After the homer, a television camera caught Acta and Dukes engaged in what appeared to be a spirited conversation.

From the beginning, this game swerved with wild back-and-forths, and always plenty of fight. Washington starter Tim Redding showed his determination, clawing back from his first-inning struggles despite not feeling sharp all day. That he lasted six innings, allowing just one run in the final five, meant that Washington remained within striking distance for a comeback.

In unlikely fashion, the Nationals made it happen. One Ronnie Belliard home run in the fifth cut Pittsburgh's lead to 3-1. Then, in Paul Maholm's final inning, a barrage of Washington solo homers -- in order, from Young, catcher Jesús Flores and another from Belliard -- propelled the Nationals into a 4-4 tie.

A Belliard hit one inning later gave the Nationals their first lead of the game, but that too would disappear. In the eighth inning, Acta counted on Luis Ayala to hold a 5-4 lead, but the right-hander instead triggered another spate of big moments for the opposition. The three batters Ayala faced walked, doubled and lined a hit up the middle.

Charlie Manning came on with no outs and runners on first and third. He got one strikeout and exited for Joel Hanrahan.

Hanrahan's second pitch to pinch hitter Doug Mientkiewicz was lined to right field: a sacrifice fly, giving Pittsburgh a 6-5 lead. But a temporary one.

"I thought it was a very good win for us," Acta said. "We showed a lot. Our guys fought hard. And then coming back on Capps one of the best closers in the game. I think it showed a lot of character."

Milledge was later asked why his team, this time around, flashed a determination stronger than anything seen earlier this year.

"I don't know," he said. "We just came out with fire today. A lot of it could be that we just got swept, or a lot of it could be that we just felt good today. We've got a great group of guys, and you've seen that today. We can do that often. Whether we do or not, with the passion we showed today, we don't know until the games play on."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company