By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 3, 2009
The late innings of Washington Nationals games through the first two months of the season have been reserved for their own bullpen futility. The Nationals mastered losing in both frequency and variety, and seldom have they experienced the ecstasy of a comeback.
In fact, the Nationals started the eighth inning trailing 28 times before last night's game against the San Francisco Giants. They won only two of those games. When they trailed by one run entering the eighth inning last night, the odds of a comeback seemed as a good as the odds of turning around a forgettable season.
But a new month brought new fortune. Players who had been struggling -- shortstop Cristian Guzmán and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman -- drove in crucial runs. A leaky bullpen appeared partially sealed. And a deficit turned into a lead after six eighth-inning runs helped the Nationals to a 10-6 victory, breaking a six-game losing streak.
"Everybody knows that effort has never been an issue with these guys," Manager Manny Acta said. "It was huge."
The Nationals started the eighth inning with four consecutive singles from players in the Nos. 7 through 1 spots in the batting order. The final single came from Guzmán, who hit successfully for the first time since May 26 by driving in the go-ahead run. Guzmán's hit also meant two runners were on base with no outs for the heart of the Nationals' lineup.
After Nick Johnson struck out, Zimmerman doubled in both runners. It was Zimmerman's first multi-hit game since May 18.
"I've kind of gone away from my plan on a couple of at-bats," Zimmerman said. "I got to keep it simple, keep doing what I was doing before, and I had some good bats."
The lead kept building when Elijah Dukes doubled in Zimmerman. Dukes, who was activated from the disabled list before the game, played for the first time since May 17 and fortified the middle of the Nationals' lineup. Wil Nieves hit a sacrifice fly to score the final run of the inning.
"We always play the game kind of close," Dukes said. "We capitalized today off a lot of hits. We stuck in there with our defense and let us hang around, when our bats got going again."
Even more important than the hits was the bullpen keeping the Giants quiet in the seventh and eighth innings. Veteran reliever Ron Villone pitched for 1 2/3 of those innings, not allowing a hit and continuing a streak of 14 2/3 innings with the Nationals without allowing a run. Villone improved to 3-0 with the win.
Joel Hanrahan said the Nationals' bullpen jokes that when Villone enters the game, the relievers do not need to worry about warming up.
"Villone was the key," Acta said.
The comeback helped erase a deficit created by a costly pitch in the fifth inning. With runners on second and base and two outs, Nationals starter Craig Stammen threw a 3-1 curveball that fell short in the dirt. Catcher Josh Bard failed to block the ball, which dribbled out of the batting circle. As Fred Lewis raced home from third, Bard tried flicking the ball to Stammen. The throw was errant, and Juan Uribe scored.
The Nationals held a 2-1 lead with two outs before the sequence. They trailed 3-2 after the sequence. Stammen needed to tie a shoe that had fallen off. He jerked the shoestrings, a young pitcher trying to stay calm even though an impressive performance against defending National League Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum had turned wayward after one pitch that never even hit a bat.
The Giants built their lead after the error, but the Nationals' offense worked the counts and forced Lincecum out of the game in the seventh inning with 110 pitches. Three of the four relievers used by the Giants allowed hits, and two allowed three runs each.
By beating Lincecum, the Nationals took the lead in a series in which they face Randy Johnson going for his 300th win tonight and rising star Matt Cain tomorrow. It came on a day when the Nationals announced the dismissal of longtime pitching coach Randy St. Claire and an injury to catcher Jesús Flores that might stretch through the season.
The eventful afternoon ended with an unexpected win. In the Nationals' clubhouse, it was simply a matter of time before luck turned.
"I think, as a team, as individuals, they know they need to play better," Acta said. "Those guys are trying. It'll get better."