By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 30, 2008
Like the best celebrations, this one owed its energy to improbability. You could read it on the faces on the 20-some Washington Nationals who had surged from the dugout just as the final hit of a 12-inning game landed several rows beyond the fence, several feet inside the left field foul pole. The Nationals, at least for a moment, were under the spell of whopping, head-shaking surprise.
As a general rule, teams bulldozed by injuries don't win extra-inning battles of attrition. Teams beset by bullpen problems don't meet requirements for near-flawlessness. Teams fielding getaway-day lineups composed in part of Class AAA Columbus Clippers and Class AA Harrisburg Senators don't erase deficits with two outs and two strikes.
But when they do -- as happened yesterday, when absurdity trumped predictability -- a last-place team gets the rare chance to forget about a lost season and embrace a memorable day. Ronnie Belliard's two-out home run in the 12th inning yesterday afternoon in front of a record crowd of 39,824 at Nationals Park hoisted the Nationals to a 3-2 victory against the Baltimore Orioles and delivered, perhaps, the team's most unlikely victory of the year, a triumph of odds even their mothers wouldn't have bet.
When it ended with Belliard's sixth homer of the season and George Sherrill's fourth blown save, a vortex of red jerseys awaited Belliard at home plate. Some 45 feet from home, Belliard tossed his helmet toward the field. Willie Harris motioned Belliard into the mob, and the Washington third baseman complied with a missile-like dive.
Soon, Belliard was swallowed. Teammates pinballed him with chest bumps and high-fives. Dmitri Young, who'd walked one batter earlier, received an embrace from Manager Manny Acta. Like that, the Nationals had won three out of four. They returned to the clubhouse, still adrenalized, and talked about their high hopes for the second half of the season.
"Well, it was so tiresome for some of the guys, especially our bullpen and our position players," Acta said. "There were a couple guys there who have been going every single day. And it was hot out there. At times it's more mentally draining than physically. But the guys kept going."
Said Young: "We never say die. We go all the way to the last out."
For much of the game, making outs was the lone thing Washington had done with any reliability. No matter who Acta plucked from his bench, no matter how he configured his lineup -- and indeed, every position player appeared in the game -- the Nationals were stuck in a stalemate. Starters Jason Bergmann and Jeremy Guthrie had neutralizing, but impressive, stat lines: Seven innings, one run.
The Nationals appeared averse to scoring a second. In four of the first eight innings, they grounded into double plays. Entering the final inning, they'd managed just eight hits, all singles, in 38 at-bats. Given that Kory Casto, Wily Mo Peña, Harris and Wil Nieves formed the 5-8 spots, at least initially, you might say the Nats were simply conforming to expectation.
But in the 12th, when the Nationals trailed 2-1, that all changed. With two outs, Young drew a five-pitch walk. Out of bench players, Acta couldn't pinch-run for the 298-pounder. His lineup card was a mess. Acta needed assembly instructions if his team was to somehow survive for a 13th inning. "Paul [Lo Duca] was going to catch and Dmitri was going to play first," Acta said later. "Aaron Boone was going to play third base, Ronnie to second and then Pete Orr to left field. That's it."
Given the dilemma, Belliard, hitless in his last 13 at-bats, saw only one option. A home run, and nothing else, would enable Young to score without difficulty. A home run would free the Nationals from entering another stage of a depleting game.
"He knew what he had to do," Young said.
So Belliard looked for one thing: A slider, inside.
After two pitches, Belliard was behind 0-2. One more pitch, and Baltimore could clinch a series win; Adam Jones's 12th-inning single off Joel Hanrahan could stand as the game-winner. Then, with the count 1-2 to Belliard, Sherrill tried an outside fastball. Most on the Baltimore side believed the pitch brushed the corner; plate umpire Ron Kulpa disagreed. "Yeah," Sherrill said, asked if he thought the pitch was a strike.
Next pitch, Belliard saw what he wanted -- a slider inside. He unloaded, took two or three slow steps toward first base, let a wad of spit fly, and began his home run trot.
"I got lucky," Belliard later said. "I got lucky."
Several lockers away, Young overheard the explanation. With that came a rebuttal.
"He didn't get lucky!" Young bellowed. "He didn't get lucky!"