By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 24, 2009
Chances are, the Washington Nationals won't transform henceforth into a 99-loss juggernaut, finishing their season with 12 consecutive wins, avoiding the indignity of triple digits. One more loss, and they've got 100 of them. Perhaps it's inevitable. Perhaps it's been inevitable since April.
But if the Nationals somehow go crazy, not losing again until 2010, it'll be no less improbable than Wednesday night's 5-4 victory over Los Angeles -- a celebration of microscopic odds, turned right.
The Nationals, down 3-0, were under the no-hit spell of Chad Billingsley until the sixth inning. Their relievers in a tie game walked leadoff men in the seventh and eighth innings, allowing no runs. Their go-ahead run in the top of the eighth came only when the Dodgers botched a routine fly ball and an inning-ending double play. They entered the bottom of the ninth tied only because relievers Sean Burnett and Sa?l Rivera retired Los Angeles's 3-4-5 hitters with the bases loaded and no outs.
As interim manager Jim Riggleman said, "You're not going to bet those odds in Vegas."
Even in a game where the odds made no sense, Washington played the percentages in the bottom of the ninth, using a strategy based on one number: 1.5 seconds. That's the amount of time Los Angeles reliever James McDonald, pitching in a 4-4 tie, needed to deliver the ball.
After a Justin Maxwell leadoff single, first base coach Marquis Grissom mentioned to Maxwell the righty's slow delivery. By the time Maxwell reached second, advancing on a sacrifice bunt by Alberto Gonz?lez, he knew he'd steal third. First pitch to Jorge Padilla, he was off.
McDonald threw a 78 mph breaking pitch.
Maxwell zipped into third, head-first.
"Awesome," Pete Orr called the steal.
"A big play," Ryan Zimmerman said. "You've got to give him credit for that."
After Padilla walked, Orr, pinch hitting, came up and whacked a fly ball to right fielder Andre Ethier. It didn't even matter that Ethier dropped the ball. Maxwell danced home, and the Nationals had the win -- their 12th final at-bat victory of the year.
"It just shows a lot about this team," Maxwell said. "We really have nothing to play for in the standings, but we're all playing hard for our manager."
For most of the season, the Nationals have shown a gift for cramming even their finer moments into losses. (Not many teams can lose, for instance, when homering five times.) This felt like the absolute inverse of such misfortune. Especially because Billingsley spent much of the night convincing some 18,635 at Nationals Park that loss No. 100 would come with the purest sort of indignity.
Holding Washington hitless through 5 2/3 innings, Billingsley was rolling. He struck out three of the game's first four hitters. Through three -- up, down; up, down; up, down -- he'd thrown just 33 pitches. The fourth-inning 1-1 pitch he threw to Adam Dunn traveled 62 mph. Dunn, who ended up walking, swung so early that he would have needed a telephone pole to hit it.
But after two walks in the sixth, Zimmerman transformed the game and ruined Billingsley's no-hitter all at once, rifling a first-pitch curveball into the back of the visitor's bullpen in left-center. As Zimmerman watched the ball clear the fence while rounding first base, he raised his right fist. The game was tied at 3. The Nationals had one hit.
"It was a big boost for our team," Maxwell said.
The Nationals carried a 4-3 lead into the top of the ninth, and did almost everything possible to lose the game; still, they mostly dodged trouble. With a Cristian Guzm?n throwing error and a single and walk against Mike MacDougal, Los Angeles loaded the bases with no outs. With the infield in, Ronnie Belliard bounced to Guzm?n, who sidearmed a throw home -- and it tailed wide, pulling Josh Bard off the plate. That tied the game at 4.
Somehow, a pair of relievers helped the Nationals prevent the Dodgers from taking the lead. Burnett, replacing MacDougal, whiffed Ethier, the No. 3 hitter. And Rivera, with a 6.21 ERA, got Manny Ram?rez to bounce to short (good for a forceout at home) and James Loney to line hard to short.
So at least for a night, the Nationals avoided their 100th loss. Some in the victorious clubhouse claimed to not even know the stakes.
"Are we at 99?" Zimmerman asked honestly, when offered a question about the number. "Oh. We just try to win every game. I think we've made some strides in the second half. I think some of the young guys that have come up in September have looked pretty good, and I think that's more important than anything. All of us are obviously pretty disappointed with this season, but I think we're pretty excited about what we have coming in the future."