By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 7, 2009
Long after his team had fallen way behind and swaggered all the way back -- and later, after the fireworks had popped, the clubhouse music had died down and most of his teammates had showered and left -- soft-spoken relief pitcher Logan Kensing, still charmed by the afterglow, reclined in his clubhouse chair and said, "Lately it just seems like we're alive."
Comebacks are the best litmus test for life; they require vigor at the exact depths where it's tempting to have none. The Washington Nationals have life. Thursday afternoon proclaimed it, practically screamed it. Down six early, their starting pitcher gone after five outs, again forced to ride a tired bullpen, playing their 22nd consecutive game without a day off, the Nationals battled back for a 12-8 victory over the Florida Marlins at Nationals Park, winning their season-high fifth straight game.
In tandem with the winning streak -- and with their 11-11 stretch under interim manager Jim Riggleman -- they also have a newfound sense of what they look like, and what they can do, with actualized talent. This comeback required help from almost every player on the roster. For every Ryan Zimmerman homer, there was a Kensing 3 1/3 -inning bailout, eating innings after starter Craig Stammen faltered. For every Elijah Dukes RBI (and he had four of them, including the game-tying solo homer in the seventh), there was a Jason Bergmann escape with the bases loaded in the sixth.
Washington won this game not because of one breakthrough, but because of relentlessness. Because of Alberto González's two-run double in the fourth, the first real puncture wound inflicted on Florida's Chris Volstad. Because of Zimmerman's two-run shot in the fifth, his 23rd homer of the year, which made it an 8-5 game and removed the wishful thinking from the comeback. Because of hits in the fifth from Adam Dunn, Josh Willingham and Josh Bard, an 8-5 deficit shrank to 8-7.
"I just wanted to keep the game close," said Kensing, who took the mound in the second, allowing two earned runs in the next 3 1/3 innings. "The way we've been scoring runs lately, it's pretty phenomenal. The offense, it's pretty much unstoppable. Any time we keep it close, there's a good chance we can pull through at the end."
Comebacks, however, work like a snare, requiring pressure from both sides. The offense alone doesn't work when chasing six runs. Yes, Washington's offense has flourished in the past few weeks -- it's averaging 7.1 runs per game since July 25 -- but that's not the first time this year that a Zimmerman-Dunn-Willingham lineup has caused damage. The thing is, earlier this year, Washington would have lost this game, 13-12, and only come away with heartache for all its effort.
"Our bullpen, they're getting worn down a bit, but they've just been outstanding," Riggleman said.
"I think they've done great," Zimmerman said. "They've been really good for a while now after the shaky start. It's just a credit to them."
On this afternoon, the bullpen ran its version of a marathon. Stammen, with a 15.43 ERA in his past three starts, faced 12 hitters. He allowed six hits and walked one. He threw 45 pitches, just one of them a swinging strike. Two of his five outs came on sacrifice flies. When he was done, a fatigued bullpen had 7 1/3 innings to handle.
But it met the challenge. Since the all-star break, Washington's relievers have a 3.19 ERA, a reversal as drastic as the roster overhaul that prompted it. Here, six relievers combined to hold down Florida as Washington's offense got to work. In the sixth, after the Nationals climbed to within 8-7, Bergmann was called to clean up a bases-loaded, one-out mess. He forced Hanley Ramírez and Jorge Cantú into back-to-back popups.
Florida didn't score in its final four innings, even though closer Mike MacDougal, who had pitched in four straight games, was not available. When Dukes's homer in the seventh against Brian Sanches tied the game at 8, Sean Burnett and Jorge Sosa combined for a scoreless top of the eighth.
Then, Washington's offense again surged in the bottom of the inning. Cristian Guzmán led off with a walk. Nyjer Morgan bunted him to second. Ronnie Belliard ripped a single up the middle, bringing home the go-ahead run. And the Nationals kept adding on, putting up three more before handing the ninth to Sosa.
"Everybody pulled their weight," Bergmann said.
"I think that hurdle has been crossed," Riggleman said. "Nobody in that room has any doubts that we can come back."