By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 21, 2009
Willie Harris is a small guy, just 5-foot-9, sometimes with a small role to boot. But well after yesterday's victory, Harris, the game's star, placed one knee up on the chair in front of his clubhouse locker and surveyed the scene, as if looking from above and afar.
"Everything," Harris said, "is just starting to come together."
Harris's next words formed a run-on sentence, which is the best way, following last night's 12-inning, 5-3 win against Toronto at Nationals Park, to summarize the newfound pleasures of Washington Nationals baseball. With no advanced warning, the Nationals, in the last few days, are becoming familiar with all the things that once eluded them. Like timely hitting. Like highlight defense. Like stellar bullpen work. Like victories. Harris, at his locker, mentioned all of these things.
In a way, Washington's four-game winning streak, at least in its suddenness, mirrors the final minutes of the most recent victory. By the time Harris came to the plate in the 12th inning, he had already contributed a ground-rule double, a stolen base, a run, and a showstopping diving catch in center field. Still, Harris knew there was more work to do. The Nationals hadn't scored since the sixth inning, allowing Toronto back into the game after Ross Detwiler's seven-inning, two earned-run start.
Harris, of course, doesn't get many chances to star. The outfield is crowded, unlike last year when Harris was, according to Manager Manny Acta, "a bright spot when we had very few." He entered this game with a .218 average and one home run, well off the pace from his career year in 2008.
"In my heart I'm an everyday player," Harris said. "In my contract I'm a utility guy."
Harris, up with no outs, began the 12th inning at bat against Scott Richmond hoping to bunt Alberto González to second. Then he tried to hit the ball on the ground, in correspondence with a planned hit-and-run. Well, neither worked, so Harris found himself facing a full count. Harris then turned on a slider and drove it into the home bullpen. Harris had a two-run homer. The Nationals had a walk-off victory. And a celebration.
"We have a ways to go," Acta said, "but this is something we've been looking for for a while."
During the last few weeks, Washington has enjoyed one constant -- no matter the final result . The starting pitching has dazzled. When the Nationals win, it's because of their pitching. When the Nationals lose, it's in spite of their pitching. In June, the rotation has a 2.99 ERA, second best in the big leagues. The five starters -- "a team within a team," Craig Stammen called it -- have entered a go-round of one-upsmanship, and in that there's only one downside. Each start is getting progressively harder to top.
All in succession, Shairon Martis went six innings (one earned), and then John Lannan pitched into the ninth (two earned), and then Stammen pitched 6 1/3 (no runs) and then Jordan Zimmermann went 5 2/3 (one earned).
"Like, with Jordan, you could see it in his eyes: I'm not going to be the guy to let this stop," Lannan said. "And he pitched great. You could tell he didn't want to be the guy to blow the streak. Knock on wood, I don't know when the last time was that somebody had a really bad start. Weeks. None of us has blown up. It's pretty cool. I'm seeing a lot of confidence from [the rookies]."
This time it was Detwiler's turn. The left-hander, making his seventh big league start, was still looking for his first victory. But again, he pitched well enough to deserve it. Take away a sixth inning solo homer from Vernon Wells, and Detwiler kept a firm grip on the ballgame. In the first five innings, no Toronto player advanced beyond second base.
He actually came out for the eighth inning, but after he allowed a lead-off single to pinch hitter Jose Bautista, Acta strode to the mound. Done after 99 pitches, Detwiler received a warm ovation from the crowd of 22,142. He also received an unfitting result.
With Bautista on second with one out after a sacrifice bunt, Kip Wells, the first reliever of the night, served up an Aaron Hill line drive to left field that brought Toronto to within a run. In the next at bat, Hill made it to third on a passed ball. Vernon Wells popped out to short, a key out, but then Joel Hanrahan came on to face Scott Rolen.
Hanrahan's second pitch of the at-bat was a high fastball. Rolen plunked it into left, and Hill came home. Detwiler's chance for a win was gone.
Far earlier in the night, Washington had built a lead thanks to Harris, whose ground-rule double and subsequent steal keyed a run in the fifth.
The Nationals scored twice more in the sixth with a cycle of doubles from Cristian Guzmán, Nick Johnson and Elijah Dukes, which built their lead to 3-1.