By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 7, 2009
Late Sunday afternoon, the Washington Nationals, losers of eight in a row, orchestrating the same performance in the same distressing rerun, were down to their last three outs -- the soft, familiar decline. Hard-throwing closer Leo Nuñez scuffed the rubber, digging in to protect a two-run lead. Lucky for him, the team he was pitching to hadn't owned a lead -- even for a moment -- since the previous Saturday.
Well before the bottom of the ninth at Nationals Park, the Nationals knew the feeling of a loss's inevitability: The closer comes on, and before you can even say here-we-go-again, opponent are shaking hands in an emptying stadium. Sunday, though, the Nationals blasted that feeling -- and their losing streak -- with a celebration. With two rallies and two home runs in the ninth, the Nationals pulled off one of their most memorable victories of the season, defeating the Marlins, 5-4, and reminding themselves of one game's curative power.
The doldrums of the previous week were ripped apart with the game's final swing: a Ryan Zimmerman two-run, walk-off homer that ended with a mob of red jerseys at home plate.
"Just a true team effort," Zimmerman said.
"The way we won that game," Willie Harris said, "it was huge for us."
Nuñez is a fastball-changeup guy, a power pitcher with a nasty offspeed counterpunch. Against Nuñez, you guess; you have no choice. Those who faced him in the ninth, down 4-2, guessed right. Harris led off the inning. Guessing that Florida would expect him to take the first pitch, Harris waited for a fastball -- and when he saw it, first pitch, a 94 mph heater roared into the right field stands, bringing Washington within a run.
From there, the Nationals kept working. Cristian Guzmán, still with no outs, beat out an infield hit -- a bouncer toward second base.
Zimmerman dug in. He was 0 for 4, defeated all day with offspeed pitches. So he guessed he'd see more of the same. Zimmerman saw a 1-1 changeup, cocked his bat, and unloaded. Off it went, on a sizzling line into the Red Porch seats in left-center, his 28th home run of the year. Zimmerman tossed his bat and trotted. Nationals Park, with 22,325 in attendance, went wild. Teammates mobbed home plate, awaiting. Zimmerman touched home and disappeared in a pile. Nuñez took the loss, having allowed three runs on only five pitches.
The ninth inning happened so fast, the Nationals couldn't help but relive it in the afterglow -- recounting the key moments. Each participant, by the way, credited somebody other than himself. (Said Harris: "The game changed with Guzy's hit." Said Zimmerman: "I think Willie's at-bat really set the tone for the inning.")
Washington had entered the ninth weighted by that here-we-go-again sensation. They were playing the Marlins, against whom they had a 3-11 record. They'd also wasted an efficient 6 2/3 from J.D. Martin (six hits, two runs) by squandering several two-out, runners-on-base opportunities against Anibal Sánchez. (It didn't help that Wil Nieves and Alberto González were being relied upon for those clutch hits.) Even when Mike Morse delivered a surprise pinch-hit, two-RBI single in the eighth, he was thrown out advancing to second -- a rundown that resulted when he got tangled up with the lead runner. When Mike MacDougal allowed two in the top of the ninth -- with former Washington teammate Nick Johnson delivering the go-ahead single -- the Nationals were just three outs from defeat.
"I think sometimes it just shows the world that that team doesn't quit," interim manager Jim Riggleman said.
"You just have to keep your character and keep pushing," Harris said. "I mean, your character is tested when you're down. Anybody can be a good guy when you're on top. But when you're down and out, losing games, that's your character test."