Nationals Dig a Little Deeper

Cristian Guzmán delivers the big hit for Washington, ripping a three-run double to left-center field in the bottom of the eighth inning.
Cristian Guzmán delivers the big hit for Washington, ripping a three-run double to left-center field in the bottom of the eighth inning. (By Luis Alvarez -- Associated Press)
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By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 4, 2008

At the beginning of this homestand nine days ago, the key components of yesterday's comeback victory were either out of town or out of sorts. Kory Casto was at Columbus, the Nationals' Class AAA affiliate. So was Roger Bernadina. You might say Cristian Guzmán was in Washington, but that's assuming you could find the guy under the massive slump that buried him.

The four-run eighth inning that lifted Washington last night to a 9-7 victory against Philadelphia at Nationals Park typified the transformative power of these last nine days. The Nationals went 8-1, taking the latest series from the pennant-chasing Phillies. Its franchise third baseman rediscovered his power, hitting three home runs, including another center field shot last night. Its shortstop, Guzmán, started eight games and had at least two hits every time; his final hit of the homestand, an eighth-inning bases-clearing double, delivered the decisive blow.

Meanwhile, in the last days, the Nationals' roster has grown. September call-ups have not just opened opportunities for playing time, but opened managerial strategies in the late innings -- which Manager Manny Acta exploited yesterday. At times last month, Washington had just three healthy bench players; yesterday, with Casto and Bernadina in the starting lineup, "the guys on the bench were the ones with track records." Which meant that Philadelphia, deciding between a lefty or a righty from its bullpen in the eighth, was damned either way.

"That's why you have all those people," Acta said.

The Nationals entered the eighth last night tied at 5 against a team that, thanks to a series roiled with collisions and hit batsmen, has fast become its most intriguing adversary. Casto and Bernadina, both in the minors nine days ago, ignited the rally with singles. One bench player, Pete Orr, pinch-ran for Casto. A pinch hitter, Ronnie Belliard, singled to score Orr, the go-ahead run. Just before Guzmán came to the plate, Emilio Bonifacio walked.

The bases were loaded for the league's hottest hitter, batting .538 (21 for 39) during this homestand.

Guzman, facing J.C. Romero, worked the count to 2-0. Then he splashed a double into left-center, boosting the Nationals to a 9-5 lead.

"I was just trying to find the gap," Guzmán said.

Washington's all-star middle infielder made certain that Philadelphia's all-star middle infielder, Chase Utley, wasn't the final story of this game.

One night earlier, Utley had played the part of wrecking ball in a steal-of-home collision with catcher Jesús Flores, who hit the dirt, held on for an out and left the game with an ankle sprain. In the night and afternoon that followed, Nationals players assured all interested parties that Utley had done nothing dirty, nothing worthy of a measured retaliation.

Then, given the first opportunity, Washington starter Odalis Pérez modified that sentiment. The first pitch he threw to Utley in the first inning was a fastball, aimed right at the left-hander's hip. Utley, hit by more pitches than any other player in baseball, made no attempt to leave his territory. The pitch plunked him square and hard.

The message cost the Nationals a run, only because of what came next. Philadelphia cleanup hitter Ryan Howard -- who leads the majors in homers and strikeouts -- went boom instead of bust, demolishing a 2-2 Pérez pitch into the deep right-center field seats. Philadelphia led 2-0. Perez lasted five innings, allowing three runs.

As the game seesawed back and forth, Utley played a central role. His third-inning triple scored Jimmy Rollins, pushing the Phillies ahead 3-2. In the bottom of the fifth, Washington loaded the bases with no outs. One fielder's choice groundout, from Lastings Milledge, tied the game. Then Elijah Dukes, with runners on first and third and one out, bounced a hard one-hopper to third for what looked like an inning-ending double play. But Milledge, taking off from first, made a hard slide into second. Just as Utley took the throw from third, ready to turn, Milledge flipped Utley like a pancake. The second baseman never threw to first. Washington scored its fourth run and Milledge left the field to a standing ovation.

Two more home runs flipped the game again. Howard's two-run homer in the sixth replicated his blast in the first, except it came off reliever Marco Estrada, and put Philadelphia ahead 5-4. Zimmerman's home run -- his 11th of the season -- tied the score in the seventh.

And that set the stage for Washington to, again, showcase its remade team. Of the 32 players who dressed for yesterday's game, 17 had spent time with Columbus this year not on rehab assignment. One was Casto, who, against Philadelphia in his first start since returning, went 2 for 4 with an RBI. Asked how far he'd come in nine days, Casto gave it a moment's thought.

"I was probably doing the same thing nine days ago," he said, "but in a crappy stadium."

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