By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
To take a lead last night, the Washington Nationals relied on the most methodical component of their team. To hold the lead, they relied on madness. Last night's 4-3 win against the Atlanta Braves compressed the work of a patient offense with a pins-and-needles ninth. Because of their battle-back lineup -- which knocked Kenshin Kawakami out of the game after just five-plus innings and 93 pitches -- the Nationals took a one-run lead into the ninth. Because the often-combustible Joel Hanrahan didn't combust, that lead somehow survived the right-hander's final 15 pitches, including the final one that he shouldn't have thrown.
Hanrahan earned his second save by surviving dire circumstances. He started the inning with a walk and a double, cornering himself in a second-and-third, no-outs situation. "I kind of made the fire myself," Hanrahan said.
What happened during the next three at-bats preserved the win, boosted Washington's record to 3-10, and showcased the team's newfound ability to endure. With two aboard, Hanrahan got a chopper back to the mound from Greg Norton. Then, Kelly Johnson flew to shallow center -- not deep enough for the runner on third to tag up.
Hanrahan needed just one more out for an escape. Yunel Escobar was due up.
Pitching coach Randy St. Claire visited the mound with some advice.
"Saint came out to the mound just to give me a breather," Hanrahan recalled minutes later. "I tried to call [catcher Jesús] Flores up to the mound and see what he wanted to do with [Escobar]. I kind of had an idea. They said, let's get out there and throw him a first-pitch slider because he's an aggressive hitter. I said, 'All right, all right.' I got up on the mound, and Flores didn't put down any sign and, I don't know, I just said, 'I'm going to throw this fastball as hard as I can.' "
Recalled Flores: "Bro, no signs -- first-pitch slider, let's go. And he throws a 94-mph fastball."
Sure enough, the fastball painted the outside corner. Escobar ripped it to second, but right at Anderson Hernández. A throw to first, and Washington had its second win in a row.
For all of the drama, though, the win was also built on persistence. Indeed, Washington's lineup, unlike last year's, is patient and imposing. With a healthy Nick Johnson, a hot Ryan Zimmerman and a towering Adam Dunn, the offense qualifies as the team's greatest, and perhaps only, attribute. Only one opposing starter this year has lasted more than six innings.
So early on, after a brutal first inning from Shairon Martis -- 22 pitches, two walks, an error, three runs with two outs -- Washington found itself in a hole. In similar scenarios last season, the Nationals swung too often and missed too frequently to recover. But in 2009, the Nationals rank fourth in the majors in pitches seen per plate appearance (4.04). They rank sixth in baseball in walks. Dunn leads all players. Deeper, older, bolstered by some of the most patient hitters in the game (Dunn, Johnson), Washington now waits and pounces. Which is exactly what happened last night.
Down 3-0 against Atlanta's Kawakami -- a 33-year-old junkballer -- the Nationals took pitches and, eventually, got just enough big hits. Start with the second inning, when Austin Kearns worked a walk, Flores doubled on the fifth pitch of his at-bat, and by the end of the inning Kawakami had already thrown 45 pitches. By the sixth, Kawakami's third time through the lineup, the Nationals were ready to turn a deficit into a lead.
Kawakami pitch No. 85: Dunn drove it into the stratosphere, dropping it into the grassy hill behind center field, his fourth home run of the year.
Pitch No. 91: Elijah Dukes drilled it to third, too hard for Chipper Jones to handle, an error.
Pitch No. 93: Kearns smoked a liner to left, dropping it just in front of left fielder Matt Diaz, who let it skip under his mitt. By the time Diaz recovered, Kearns had an RBI triple. The Nationals were tied. And Kawakami was cooked.
"Well I think our guys, they're really getting deep in the counts and having quality at-bats," Manager Manny Acta said. "So I think our lineup overall has enough guys now that can run a starting pitcher out of the game by the sixth. Just by being patient."