After a Long Wait, Nats Shut Out Yankees

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 19, 2009

NEW YORK, June 18 -- Waiting is all relative. On a day defined by a 5-hour 26-minute rain delay, the Washington Nationals finally pulled off the sort of accomplishments they'd long been waiting for. The kind of things that required weeks, if not years.

With Thursday night's 3-0 victory against the Yankees at Yankee Stadium, the Nationals won their second in a row; not since May 8 and 9 had they won two straight. New closer Mike MacDougal, who before Wednesday had gone 1,066 nights without a save, finished off his second ballgame in a row. And the Nationals, now 18-46, left town able to savor a rare high point.

They'd outlasted a patience-testing storm. They'd secured the first big league win for starter Craig Stammen. They'd committed no errors. They'd bested a playoff-caliber team. They'd even alleviated, at least briefly, the scrutiny on their under-fire manager.

"It's been a long day," Manager Manny Acta said. "When you have three meals at the ballpark before you start the game, it's been a long day. But it was worthwhile."

The session at the ballyard ended at 9:30, some 8 1/2 hours after the scheduled first pitch, but during that span, the Nationals refused to play their role. (One New York tabloid referred to anything short of a Yankees sweep as "inexcusable." This was just Washington's third series win of the year.)

"We're no rollovers for sure," Willie Harris said.

"It looks like we're starting to turn a corner a little bit," Ryan Zimmerman said.

MacDougal, with the help of a double play, pitched a drama-free ninth inning for his second save. A line of road gray uniforms congregated in the infield, exchanging high-fives. The Nationals had created a two-game winning streak built on sound defense and quality pitching. For that, they'd been waiting a season.

When Washington's team bus pulled up to Yankee Stadium just after 11 a.m., the Bronx was getting pummeled by a Noah's Ark rainstorm. By noon, pitching coach Steve McCatty poked his head into Acta's office and asked whether the afternoon's starting pitcher, Stammen, should crank up his pregame routine, in expectation of a 1:05 p.m. first pitch. Acta said not to worry. The game wouldn't start until 2 p.m. or 3 p.m., at the earliest.

But the rain didn't relent all afternoon. At one point, Yankees officials planned for a 4 p.m. start time. That was never possible. Meantime, both clubhouses waited and wondered. Players idled with card games. Stammen watched television and read a book. The teams, across the rest of the season, had just one mutual off day -- this Monday. And the Yankees, at that point, would be in the middle of a road trip -- finishing Sunday in Florida, starting Tuesday in Atlanta. So playing here, and outlasting the rain, was the best chance.

By the time Joba Chamberlain walked to the mound under gray but dry skies, the stadium clock read 6:30. He threw the game's first pitch at 6:31. All the waiting, by then, guaranteed that this night would reward endurance, a channeled focus.

The Nationals had it.

Stammen, making his sixth career start, found himself in an unorthodox situation, pitching in a normally full stadium with a scattering of several thousand, pitching to a normally patient lineup that was swinging at everything. A sinkerballer, he had the best start of his career, limiting New York to six hits and no runs in 6 1/3 innings. He threw smart strikes, pitching to contact, and in a way, the game developed like an inverse to the rain delay. It was furiously paced.

The game's first three innings required just 30 minutes. Stammen retired the side in the second on just five pitches. Through four, he'd thrown just 40.

In the late innings, terrific defense helped him, too. The first out of the fifth came when Austin Kearns, in right field, barehanded the rebound of Nick Swisher's off-the-wall liner and hurled a strike to second base, nailing Swisher. The first out of the seventh came when left fielder Harris, sprawled for an over-the-head Alex Rodriguez liner, pulled off a full-extension catch. Later in the inning, after Stammen allowed two hits and exited with one out, Ron Villone and Julian Tavárez each recorded a key out to help the Nationals escape a bases-loaded jam.

Facing Chamberlain, the Nationals had already done enough damage to make that work stand. Zimmerman, who went 3 for 5, teamed up with Adam Dunn for back-to-back doubles in the first, which produced the first run. As Chamberlain struggled with his control, Washington worked counts and scored single runs in the fourth and fifth as well. In the fourth, Chamberlain walked three, including Wil Nieves with the bases loaded. In the fifth, Zimmerman, with his third hit of the night, pounded a double into left-center, scoring Cristian Guzmán.

Speaking about his first career victory, Stammen said: "It feels good. I've been waiting on it for a while."

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