Nationals Rally to Beat Marlins
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
A stream of well-dressed humanity strode from the Washington Nationals' dugout to a raised stand in the center field grass at Nationals Park on Tuesday afternoon -- clubhouse staff in matching red polo shirts, team executives in dark suits and ties, players and field staff in crisp home whites. It was team picture day, a time-honored tradition that for many teams commemorates a season, but which here seemed but a random snapshot in time of a franchise and a roster in constant flux.
Some seven hours later, the Nationals emerged again from the same dugout, now covered in dirt, sweat and -- in the case of Elijah Dukes, who swallowed a bug while at the plate in the eighth inning -- vomit. They were ecstatic, and maybe a little incredulous. It was another snapshot in time.
The Nationals had just pulled off something their previous incarnations, even the one from a month ago, could have never imagined: Down four runs in the eighth inning, to a pitcher throwing like Cy Young himself and a team that had beaten them nine straight times this season, the Nationals rallied to an improbable 6-4 victory over the Florida Marlins that had players calling it the season's most satisfying win.
"Yeah, I think that was the best," said slugger Adam Dunn, whose two-out, two-run homer in the eighth accounted for the winning margin. "Against a guy who, in my opinion, is the best pitcher in the game, with a four-run lead -- that's pretty tough."
The pitcher was Josh Johnson, the Marlins' ace -- 6 feet 7, 240 pounds of utter bat destruction. Entering the eighth, he was shutting out the Nationals on two hits, having retired 20 straight batters -- while outscoring the Nationals on his own, courtesy of a solo, opposite-field homer in the fourth.
"He was unhittable. He was as good as a pitcher could be," Dunn said. "But we hung around, hung around, hung around."
In the Nationals' dugout, where once perhaps there would have been silence and acceptance -- the instinctual response of a unit that was being compared to history's worst teams -- there was energy and defiance as the game wore on.
"As good as Johnson was, the mood in the dugout was, 'Let's chip away here. Let's pick up a couple,' " interim manager Jim Riggleman said. "There's a lot of guys in there who want to turn this around and be a part of it."
It began innocently enough with a broken-bat single by Willie Harris. Pitching out of the stretch for the first time since the first inning, Johnson allowed two more singles to Alberto González and Wil Nieves, loading the bases.
Before the Marlins could even get their bullpen ready, pinch hitter Ronnie Belliard -- batting .198 entering the game -- was bashing a hanging slider to the wall in left-center, a two-run double.
Four batters later, with the score now tied, Dunn -- who had struck out three times in three at-bats against Johnson -- worked the count full against lefty Dan Meyer, then launched a shot to left that sailed into the stands to the left of the Marlins' bullpen. As Dunn rounded second base, and an announced crowd of 19,828 exploded, Dunn blew a giant, pink bubble with his gum.
If the Nationals seem like an entirely new team these days -- winners of seven of their past 11 games, their longest such stretch of sustained success this season -- it is almost literally so. As Tuesday afternoon's team photo will attest, there is almost no resemblance to the team that took the field April 6 on opening day.
John Lannan, Wednesday night's starter, is the only pitcher on the 12-man staff who was here on opening day.
Of Tuesday night's lineup, only Dunn and Cristian Guzmán started on opening day. A photo taken then would have featured such luminaries as Daniel Cabrera, Lastings Milledge, Mike Hinckley and Wil Ledezma -- not to mention a different manager and pitching coach.
It would have also featured Nick Johnson, the first baseman who started 92 of the team's first 102 games, only to be traded to the Marlins on Friday.
Back in D.C. just four days after the deal, he came to the plate in the top of the first to a warm but not particularly inspiring ovation, and promptly singled through the hole on the right side to drive in the Marlins' first run.
He was in every Nationals team photo from 2005 to 2008 -- and even back to 2004, in the franchise's Montreal days -- but on this night Johnson was just a bit of nostalgia, another symbol of the constant change, which is the only constant the Nationals really know.