Dukes's Bases-Clearing Double Helps Nats Outlast Braves

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 8, 2008

ATLANTA, Sept. 7 -- The 18th and final meeting between the fourth- and fifth-place teams in the National League East started with the sun still high and the stakes quite low, but it refused to end that way. In fact, for much of the afternoon, it refused to end whatsoever. By the time it did, the 1:36 p.m. first pitch had long since departed the bank of short-term memory. Either team's starter could have watched a full Spielberg movie in the time since he'd been yanked.

Indeed, in the time required for the Washington Nationals to defeated Atlanta, 7-4 in 14 innings on Sunday afternoon, the 30,753 at Turner Field could have driven to the beach. Or translated Dostoyevsky.

But those who remained to watch -- those who observed 18 pitchers, 477 pitches and 4 hours 34 minutes of baseball -- bore witness to a game that brewed its own significance. Because by the end, duration itself was the achievement.

The Braves and Nationals played the ninth, 10th, 11th, 12th and 13th innings Sunday in a listless stalemate -- unable to score, unable to escape. Players later said their legs felt dead. Pitchers were flipping quarters in the bullpen, guessing who would appear next. By the 14th inning, the notion that either Atlanta or Washington could score had become a dubious notion, provable only by the earliest numbers in the box score, or perhaps carbon dating.

When the game finally ended, perhaps both teams celebrated, but only Washington got to celebrate the result. Elijah Dukes's bases-clearing double in the 14th against Atlanta reliever Jeff Bennett scored three runs and enabled closer Joel Hanrahan to enter in the bottom half and finish Washington's eighth consecutive scoreless inning of bullpen work.

Dukes's final at-bat, his seventh of the game, came with the sort of half-baked absurdity that only extra inning tedium can deliver. Right before stepping in, Dukes heard a fan taunt him: "How does it feel to be 0 for 7?" The fan was being presumptuous: Dukes had just six at-bats, but right there, he decided that 1 for 7 would feel more palatable. Then, he pounded a double down the third base line, and ensured that the Nationals could leave Atlanta with a series split.

"I didn't start thinking until the 10th inning," Dukes said of the game's length, "and that's when I realized I'm like dying out there. And I started thinking, 'Man, we've got to do something.' It's like everybody was feeling those 4 1/2 hours. I know I was feeling it. I'll probably be feeling it for the next two days."

Today, Washington gets a well-timed day off, but even that doesn't allow enough time to pore over the mess of proper nouns and numbers that this game left behind. In Washington's longest game of the season, Ryan Zimmerman went 0 for 7. Second baseman Anderson Hernández walked four times. Alberto González knocked in three runs and finished a triple shy of the cycle. Lastings Milledge hit his 14th home run but lost a fly ball in the sun -- this was hours before the stadium itself lost sight of the sun -- that allowed two Atlanta runs to score in the second.

For all of the Nationals' early-game sins, the bullpen compensated. After starter Collin Balester surrendered four runs and 11 hits in six innings, the seven Washington relief pitchers combined for eight scoreless innings, yielding just five hits. Saúl Rivera and Steven Shell pitched two innings apiece. Garrett Mock recorded two strikeouts in a 1-2-3 eighth. And in the ninth, Mike Hinckley notched his fourth consecutive scoreless appearance, facing four batters and getting into a stare-down with one.

Indeed, after Hinckley hit Gregor Blanco with a pitch -- a fastball brushed the inside of the center fielder's jersey -- Blanco took several menacing steps toward the pitcher's mound and sledge-hammered his bat into the ground. Hinckley appeared startled; he had no intention of hitting the batter.

"I didn't know if he was going to come out [and charge]," Hinckley said. "We were in the ninth inning -- frustration, it's been a long game. And I didn't know what was going to happen, but I was ready just for whatever. He looked at me, the thing is, it hit his jersey. I didn't do it on purpose. I was trying to come inside, and I wanted to make sure that if I came inside I missed in. I think that I hit his jersey, and no big deal. But he apparently thought I did it on purpose, which -- that's his problem."

The way the game ended, Washington received the chance to toast its persistence. In the final innings, manager Manny Acta told his players to maintain their energy level. To keep battling.

"Fatigue set in on both sides," Milledge said. "I think that's why it went longer than it was supposed to. But we survived the fatigue."

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