Close Nationals Win Saved by Inconceivably Odd Play

Nationals catcher Jesús Flores forces out Arizona's Felipe López earlier this season.
Nationals catcher Jesús Flores forces out Arizona's Felipe López earlier this season. (By Matt York -- Associated Press)
By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 10, 2009

PHOENIX, May 9 -- The final score on Saturday night mattered only as much as another number combination, nine-two. Without nine-two, the Washington Nationals wouldn't have gotten the most implausible play of their season. They probably wouldn't have gotten their most implausible victory either. And by no means would they have been so excited, following Saturday night's 2-1 escape against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field, to speak about Austin Kearns' right arm and Jesús Flores' big toe.

Nine-two: that's how it appeared in the scorebooks, shorthand for a forceout at home on a throw from right field. That's how Kearns, the right fielder, and Flores, the catcher, combined to pull off the sort of play that comes around with Ice Age regularity. Nine-two, though, also represented more, serving as an apt symbol for a night of absurd escapes. Washington owed its third consecutive victory to lottery-winning fortune. Inning after inning, everything went just so. The Diamondbacks stranded 16 runners. Three times in six innings, starter John Lannan stranded runners on third after they'd reached with one out. Five Washington relievers were credited with holds, and the sixth, Joel Hanrahan, struck out the final batter with the winning run on second.

All this on a night that Ryan Zimmerman hit an eighth-inning homer to extend his hitting streak to 27 games.

But after it ended, everybody wanted to talk about nine-two.

"The play of the game," Manager Manny Acta said.

"Unbelievable," Lannan said. "Unbelievable."

Nine-two happened in the bottom of the seventh, as the Nationals clung to a 1-0 lead. They were well on the way to giving it up. Reliever Garrett Mock had loaded the bases with one out, prompting Acta to called on left-hander Ron Villone for a one-batter job. Left-handed first baseman Josh Whitesell dug in.

With the count 1-2, Whitesell smoked a line drive to right field, a tweener that wasn't a certain hit until it dropped right in front of Kearns.

Inconceivable odds didn't stop him from attempting what came next.

Just as the ball smacked the ground, Felipe López, the baserunner at third -- he'd been hugging the bag, anticipating a possible tag-up -- bolted for home. Kearns, about 275 feet away from home plate, flung the ball toward home plate with a full-body heave, nearly falling to the ground after the release.

The throw bounced once, skipping about a body length to the right of the plate.

Lopez slid head-first.

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