By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 29, 2008
Nobody ever gets the triple. Finish a triple short of the cycle, and you might as well be a lottery ticket short of early retirement. The triple, after all, is the most elusive, don't-bet-on-it component of baseball's most balanced batting trick. And by the time Cristian Guzmán came to the plate in the eighth inning last night, one triple shy of a cycle, the game was already decided. It needed no further garnish.
What happened during that at-bat, in the end, didn't just catalyze perhaps the most memorable night of Guzmán's career. The conversion of long odds also stood as a suitable microcosm for both this game -- Washington thumped the Los Angeles Dodgers, 11-2, at Nationals Park -- and the series it ended. The Nationals, too, pulled off a trifecta, sweeping the same team they couldn't beat just a month ago and battering a stable of pitchers who don't often allow such things.
Guzmán's triple last night, of course, claimed the focus. When he came to the plate for his final at-bat, facing left hander Joe Beimel, he had already homered, singled (getting thrown out, fortuitously, trying to take second), and doubled. At that moment, he had just three triples in 487 at-bats. Do the math. Those in the Nationals dugout -- everybody telling Guzmán to poke a ball into the gap -- were counting on laughable odds.
But as teammates kept mentioning the triple to Guzmán, he said one thing.
"Okay, I'm trying."
By that point, whatever Guzmán did at the plate had no bearing on the game. Guzmán's first hit, a solo home run in the first, had more importance. The Nationals already led 9-2, having reached a cruising point after falling behind early. John Lannan had overcome a shaky start by tightening the reins and lasting six innings -- allowing no runs in the final five. Elijah Dukes had belted two home runs, both with the kind of power that makes you think Los Angeles should start shifting its outfielders into the concrete walkways behind left field. Washington's entire team felt one of the truest highs of its season.
Indeed, within minutes, the Nationals would close out the game. The whiteboard in their clubhouse, scrawled with a black-erase pen, would boast of their three-game accomplishment.
LOWE -- Won 2-1, GOT HIM
MADDUX -- Got Em --> NEXT
KERSHAW -- Got Em
Guzmán himself only started thinking about the final touch on this game when Los Angeles brought Beimel into the game. Guzmán, who'd struggled of late because of a left thumb injury, liked the matchup. With the count 1-2, Guzmán got a low, inside fastball and poked it deep into the left-center gap. It bounced several times and died against the wall. Washington's dugout erupted, everybody yelling: "Go three, go three!"
Guzmán went. He went like a sprinter.
"As soon as I hit the ball," he said, "I knew I was going to third."
He slid in just before the shortstop received a relay from center field. The Dodgers never even bothered with the throw.
After the game, Guzmán rushed through the clubhouse with a wide smile. "I'm still sweating," he said. He rushed out near the stadium entrance; friends wanted to see him, he said. For several minutes, he received a go-round of handshakes and hugs.
"It was nice for him to get it," Manager Manny Acta said.
It was nice, because it iced what Washington had already constructed. Lannan had opened the game by unveiling just about every telltale sign for a losing start. He allowed four batters in a row to reach in the first. Sixteen pitches into the game, pitching coach Randy St. Claire had already trotted out to the mound for counsel. Manny Ramírez, the Dodgers' dreaded, dread-locked slugger, had already sizzled a ball into the visitors' bullpen, a two-run blast. Lannan, to be sure, hadn't even thrown a bad pitch. Just so happened that Ramírez picked yet another moment to hit a low-and-away breaking ball in a way that hitters with 517 career homers can sometimes do.
If Ramírez offered the punch, Washington's entire lineup responded with the counterpunch. In the bottom of the first, the Nationals scored five runs -- or five more than they scored the previous time against Clayton Kershaw, on July 27. Guzmán flicked his sixth home run of the year to left field, cutting Los Angeles's lead in half.
Washington kept hitting, until there was no more lead to cut. Ryan Zimmerman doubled. Lastings Milledge walked. A Ronnie Belliard single to left -- the third hard-hit ball of the inning -- scored a sliding Zimmerman. Then, Dukes, in his second game back from the disabled list, ripped a Kershaw fastball over the opposite field fence. Washington had a 5-2 lead, and though it didn't need to grow, it would, receiving an exclamation point along the way.