By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 31, 2008
For almost four hours last night, they worked. Their bats conquered an early deficit, their bullpen took the heat of tense late innings, their catcher blocked the plate when he needed to, and on and on things went, deep into the 10th inning of a frantic but grueling game -- a test for persistence. Then, in one moment, all the work transformed into bliss.
With the bases loaded and two outs in the 10th inning, the game ended without a swing but with plenty of celebration. Facing pitcher Vladimir Nuñez, Elijah Dukes drew a full-count walk that forced in the winning run and lifted the Washington Nationals to a hard-earned 9-8 victory over the Atlanta Braves at Nationals Park.
The effort left its imprint everywhere: You could find it in the box score, which noted Washington's 16 hits, three from each of the lineup's top three hitters. You could find it in the standings, where Washington is now listed alongside its five-game winning streak, best of the season. Or, better yet, you could find it on the players' faces, grins as wide as car grills.
After the game, catcher Jesús Flores -- who delivered a clutch three-run double in the fifth that tied the game -- walked through the clubhouse and roared, to nobody in particular, a cry of celebration.
"We showed we weren't going to lay down," said Dukes, who was 2 for 4 with two walks. "We would keep battling."
This game was a triumph of effort. Winning streak aside, the Nationals are still a team rife with susceptibilities, and a half-week spurt of fine baseball won't alter that. That's why Manager Manny Acta, even during this streak, has preached level-headedness. Enjoy the winning, sure, but relish the work. To embrace the highs of winning while refusing the crash-and-burn of losing would be hypocritical. Per Acta doctrine, you deny the extremes on both ends.
The players have gotten the message. Even before last night's game, several talked more willingly about continuing to work than continuing to win. Within the oval of Nationals Park lockers, consistency -- measured in prep work and effort -- carries the highest currency.
And effort put its fingerprints all over this one. Down 6-2 after a rough outing from pitcher Jason Bergmann, who lasted 4 1/3 innings and issued two fifth-inning homers, the Nationals overcame the inertia of a bad start. Once they started moving, they did so with purpose. They took the lead with five runs in the fifth, and kept their chances alive in the eighth when Flores used his left leg to block home plate and tag out the would-be, go-ahead run.
Then, there was the 10th, which activated all truth in the phrasing, "to work a walk." When Nuñez took the mound in that inning, batting coach Lenny Harris gave his players a quick scouting report: He throws lots of breaking balls. Be patient. Anderson Hernández started the inning by drawing the template Dukes would follow. He walked on seven pitches.
After that, a Cristian Guzmán single and a Ryan Zimmerman walk loaded the bases with no outs -- a surefire game-ending situation.
Well, at least it seemed that way at first.
Lastings Milledge, on a steady dose of breaking balls, struck out. Then, with the outfield drawn in, Ronnie Belliard lined out hard to center. Hernández was still on third. Dukes stepped up, with the game's outcome distilled into one at-bat.
"I'm always proud of a walk. I love walks. That's my mantra," he said. "And I showed them today. I was talking about that in the batting cage today, me and [Milledge]. I told him, a walk is as good as a hit."
Dukes fell behind 1-2, but he battled back. After the count evened, Dukes fouled off two more pitches. Then, Nuñez threw a fastball wide, pushing the count as far as it could go. The crowd rose to its feet. Nuñez breathed deep and delivered the last pitch. It tailed low and away, and catcher Brian McCann trapped it in the dirt. Dukes thumped his chest with his right hand and headed to first. Hernández trotted home.
With that, the Nationals had rendered their previous comeback, which occurred in the fifth inning, worthwhile. In that half inning, the Nats had repositioned themselves in a hurry, going from done to ahead. The first five who came to the plate that inning ended up scoring. And the last of those was Flores, who came up with the bases loaded. He also came up with an 0 for 21 slump. The 23-year-old, though, cured it in one swing, stroking a 1-0 pitch against the base of the left-center fence. Three came in. Flores ended up on second, tugging at his batting gloves and smiling, weight lifted.
"Well, they did a very good job battling back," Acta said. "Right now they're flying high. They think they can come back."