Nats Enjoy a True Team Win by Beating Mets, 4-3

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The penultimate home game of a dismal baseball season belonged to the die-hards -- the eight fans in Section 234, who stood for the final three outs, and the fans behind the home dugout, snuggled into their hooded sweatshirts on a crisp evening, and the thousands who chanted "Gold Glove" before every Ryan Zimmerman at-bat. On Tuesday, 19,614 showed up. There was a fall chill and a modest pitching match-up between two losing teams. Fan Appreciation Day? That was still 24 hours away.

But even in Game 157, the 80th at Nationals Park this year, baseball can still offer little self-contained surprises, no matter if the meaning only lasts as long as the post-game handshakes. When closer Mike MacDougal sealed Washington's 4-3 victory against the Mets, Nationals Park was roaring. Roaring with enthusiasm.

Here at the dark end of a season, exactly five years to the day since Washington, D.C., had been awarded a major league franchise, they'd seen something terrific. A quality start from a pitcher who'd thrown 34 pitches in the first. A comeback from three runs down. A go-ahead run on two Mets errors. And most especially, a game-saving catch to clinch the victory.

Without the catch, the Nationals couldn't have won. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth, New York's David Wright, with the tying run on first, drilled a 96 mph fastball toward the right field wall.

"I thought off the bat that ball was well over his head," interim manager Jim Riggleman said.

Elijah Dukes thought so, too. He'd been shaded deep and toward the foul line, and here came his save-the-game sprint: 30 feet, to outrun gravity.

"Once I got a good jump," Dukes later said, "I was gaining ground on the ball, and I was like, 'Yeah, I've got a chance.' "

He caught the ball with his right arm extended, just as he smacked face-first into the wall. He bounced off the padding, limbs flailing, and tumbled backward. The ball stayed in his mitt. Second later, centerfielder Justin Maxwell greeted him for a flying chest bump.

"I must say, man, it feels good when you come out with the ball in your hand when you crash into the wall," Dukes said. "That's definitely a Web Gem. Definitely."

Washington's second consecutive win felt particularly satisfying for a team that, just days earlier, had committed a week of its ugliest baseball. The only lesson is, turnarounds can come from almost anything. Perhaps no quality start in baseball this season has sprouted from a more doomed beginning. At roughly 7:13 p.m., J.D. Martin had already loaded the bases with no outs, walked in a run and received some counsel from his pitching coach. In the bullpen, Marco Estrada grabbed a ball and started warming up. A few more lousy pitches, and Martin would be heading to the showers after a 10-minute workday.

His workday lasted longer than anybody expected. He escaped the first inning with just one run by getting three outs -- and yes, two on liners to infielders -- with the bases loaded. The Mets added two more in the second on three more hits, but after that, Martin moved through the New York lineup as a karate chop moves through wood. In his final four innings, the Mets got just two hits. He finished the evening after six innings, having given up three runs on seven hits, striking out zero.

After the game, Martin found catcher Wil Nieves and said, with a knowing smile, "I struggled, man."

Nieves assured him that it all ended well, and added, "Attaboy, papi."

It all felt good because of Washington's comeback, which began in the fifth inning when the offense finally broke through against Mets right-hander Mike Pelfrey. Pete Orr led off with a single. Ian Desmond blistered a Pelfrey fastball into the visitors' bullpen, his second home run of the season. Then, with two outs, Willie Harris, Dukes and Ryan Zimmerman connected on consecutive singles, the final one driving in Harris and tying the game.

Then in the bottom of the eighth, the Nationals took a 4-3 lead on account of two throwing errors. After a Justin Maxwell walk, the Mets botched two difficult double plays. First time, shortstop Anderson Hernández underhanded his toss to second about one foot too far from the bag, killing the chance of one out, let alone two. Then, with one out and two aboard, Hernández made a diving stop on Ian Desmond's grounder, but second baseman Luis Castillo whipped a throw wide of first. When it kicked into Washington's dugout, Maxwell came around to score.

"The fact that they have grinded it out, I think we ought to be proud of them," Riggleman said. "September is tough to do that, it really is. The Mets are out of it, we're out of it, but that was an exciting game. We gave the fans an exciting game."

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