By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 1, 2008
If everything had worked out as planned yesterday afternoon, there would have been no theatrics, no game-altering home run. Instead of launching the home run that extended the season-high winning streak, Aaron Boone would have laid down a bunt; that, after all, was the grand design in the eighth inning at Nationals Park.
But at that exact moment, with Boone batting and Washington trailing, the Nationals received hard and final proof of a karmic alteration. Misfortune, their foe all season, declared a ceasefire. One pitch after Boone fouled off a bunt, the Nationals called off the strategy -- a decision that invited Boone to swing away, drive a go-ahead three-run homer into the visitors' bullpen and propel the Nationals to an 8-4 victory over the Atlanta Braves. Said Boone, "It was a good job of not executing."
Only during Washington's present six-game winning streak, and especially yesterday, has good fortunate dared to masquerade as a miscue. Boone came to bat with Washington trailing 4-3 six outs from its first loss of this homestand. Ryan Zimmerman, who had singled, stood on second. Elijah Dukes, who had walked, stood on first. Manager Manny Acta hoped merely that Boone -- starting in place of a resting Ronnie Belliard -- could move them to second and third.
"It was just a one-shot type of thing," Acta said.
Boone squared and popped the first pitch from Atlanta reliever Elmer Dessens about 20 feet long, just foul down the first base line.
Boone, down 0-1, looked for the next signal.
Washington called off the bunt.
And that let Boone re-think his strategy. The first baseman, who hadn't homered since May 27, guessed -- and guessed right, it turned out -- that Dessens was still anticipating a bunt, and thus, would throw an aggressive (translation: readily crushable) pitch.
"You know, in a weird way, it kind of turned it in my favor a little," Boone said. "I think [Dessens] still thought I was bunting, so he wanted to stay aggressive with me, and I got a good pitch to hit."
Dessens threw a fastball, just inside, and Boone's swing changed the game. The Nationals claimed an 8-4 lead by the time the bottom of the eighth ended, all part of a charge in which their revived offense treated Atlanta's relievers like a charcoal grill treats ground chuck. And by the time Washington closed it out with three outs from Jesús Colome in the ninth, the losingest, hottest team in the National League had plenty of reason to believe, as Boone said, that things are "starting to turn."
In this game, all the little dots connected just so. Ryan Langerhans picked just the right moment for a 10-pitch, sixth-inning at-bat against starter Jair Jurrjens, a fight that prematurely knocked the reliable right-hander from the game and opened the eighth inning for Dessens, a 37-year-old pulled this week out of the Mexican League.
Washington starter Collin Balester picked just the right time for his longest start of the season, a seven-inning, 107-pitch effort in which he saved his best for last and overcame a fourth-inning three-run homer from Yunel Escobar. Heck, the good fortune didn't just extend to those on Washington's roster: Bobby and Becky Mock, parents of Nationals reliever Garrett Mock, picked just the right weekend to watch their son play baseball for the first time in two years.
Indeed, in the top of the eighth, Mock replaced Balester and tried to keep the game close. A double, a wild pitch and a walk placed runners on first and third with one out. There, with his parents watching -- they had flown up from Houston, a surprise visit -- Mock struck out Escobar and got Jeff Francoeur on an inning-ending flyout to left.
"It was pretty huge, because you want to keep the game close," Acta said of Mock's escape. "We really didn't want to give up a run to go down two or three runs at the end. He did a great job getting Escobar in that inning."
Mock earned his first major league win, just one bullet point on the list of ways in which Washington seems headed into new territory. During the last four games, Washington has scored seven or more runs every time; it has a .345 batting average during that stretch. Its six-game winning streak is the first since July 31-August 5, 2007.
For so much of this season, Acta said after yesterday's game, it felt as if his team could only find ways to lose. "It sure was happening that way," he said.
In the span of one bunt signal, that reversed.
"I wanted them to put [the signal] back on," Boone said, "but they took it off. So I said, 'Okay, let's go. Let's get busy.' "