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Ball Bounces Nationals' Way

Ryan Zimmerman, rear, circles the bases after a third-inning homer off Mike Hampton. The Nats went deep five times.
Ryan Zimmerman, rear, circles the bases after a third-inning homer off Mike Hampton. The Nats went deep five times. (By Gregory Smith -- Associated Press)
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By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 7, 2008

ATLANTA, Sept. 6 -- The Washington Nationals won on Saturday night in part because of the dirt: The dirt along the warning track here is hard, perhaps the hardest in the league. The border of Turner Field's outfield is scattered with small rocks, just enough to always give hope for the high bounce. The track has a parched desert color, like something that hasn't seen water in weeks.

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"It's got that bouncy track," said outfielder Ryan Langerhans, who played in Atlanta for parts of five seasons. "It seems like a lot of tracks are getting that way a bit, but this one, definitely. You see a lot of ground-rule doubles here, it seems like. It's funny, because the dirt on the infield and the rest of the field is really soft."

In a roundabout way, the only reason Washington even got the chance to celebrate a 10-inning, 8-5 tightrope-walk defeat of Atlanta on Saturday was because of that track, and the bounce that deflected off of it. Perhaps a team can come no closer to a loss and live to hear thumping music in its locker room.

The way it worked out, though, every variable aligned just right. Trailing by two runs in the bottom of the ninth, Atlanta loaded the bases against closer Joel Hanrahan and Braves second baseman Kelly Johnson hit what looked like a bases-clearing, game-ending double into the right-center field gap.

When Johnson struck the ball, Turner Field whipped into game-ending delirium.

The runners who had started on third and second scored easily. Atlanta's sixth run -- the winning run -- was represented by Brent Lillibridge, who took off from first just as Johnson's hit found the gap. Lillibridge never looked back, raced around third and headed for home.

Just one problem: The ball had hopped the fence. And that transformed a game-ending double into a game-tying ground-rule double.

"If that ball doesn't bounce over the wall," Hanrahan said, "that game is over."

The ground-rule double returned Lillibridge to third, where he remained. Though it took a close play at first, Hanrahan recorded the inning's final out on a slow grounder up the middle, fielded by Cristian Guzmán.

And after that, Washington finished the game with a different sort of natural element: lumber.

In the next half inning, pinch hitter Langerhans belted Washington's fifth home run of the night, all part of a three-run 10th inning that gave Washington the win it had expected all game long, only with a twist. Facing Mike Gonzalez, Langerhans swatted a 1-1 pitch several rows deep into right-center field, giving Washington a 6-5 lead. The Nationals padded that lead on a triple from Guzmán, a double from Ryan Zimmerman and a single from Elijah Dukes.

"We were up, then we were down we got it back right after that," Dukes said. "That right there lets you know what type of team we have now. We have a team that, we don't give up, and we battle, and that's something we didn't do at the beginning of the season. We took everything for granted, and now we're out there to win, and that's it."


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