Walk-Off Grand Slam Powers Nats to Win in Home Finale

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 1, 2009

As a parting gift, the Washington Nationals delivered pleasure -- no complications. The last scene of the 81st and final home game of the season was unlike any moment that preceded it, perfect and delirious, the one-minute attempt to undo a forgettable year. The manager said, "There's no way I can explain how good a feeling that is." And the guy who took the last swing said, "It's like everything I've ever dreamed of in the big leagues."

The Nationals, with Wednesday's 7-4 victory against the Mets, won't see Nationals Park again until April, and by then, both the team and its expectations will have a different feel. Until then, the Nationals can cherish the final flashing scenes of an otherwise dreary season. Justin Maxwell at the plate, two outs, bases loaded, closer on the mound. Nationals down one run. Everybody standing. Count full.

In the ninth pitch of the walk-off grand slam at-bat, Francisco Rodriguez, the $37 million reliever, threw a 92 mph fastball to a 25-year-old rookie who'd entered only one inning earlier as a pinch runner. Maxwell's parents, watching from the suite level, shared a quick prayer. Maxwell just tried to put the bat on the ball.

He connected.

A liner sizzled toward the first row of the left field stands.

Outfielder Angel Pag?n jumped, extending his mitt.

For a half-beat, nobody in the stadium knew if the ball was in Pag?n's mitt or the front row.

"It sounded so good off the bat," said Austin Maxwell, Justin's father.

"I didn't know it was a homer until you saw everybody [in the bleachers] jumping up and down," mother Kathy said.

"I think a walk-off is like the best thing in sports, personally," Maxwell said. "One at-bat. One memory. One win. So many emotions going through you. It was surreal, it was awesome."

As Maxwell rounded third base, he tore his helmet off and tossed it into the infield -- something of which he'd later have no recollection. His teammates had gathered at home plate, and Maxwell accelerated into a sprint. He jumped into the pile, and minutes later, the Nationals were still on the field, tossing T-shirts into the stands. Interim manager Jim Riggleman took a microphone and said to the crowd, "It's been a rough year in many ways, but the excitement out here night after night that we got from the fans, it's just been incredible."

This season, 1,817,256 fans, including 23,944 in the finale, passed through the turnstiles to watch a product that on many nights transmitted mixed feelings. For much of the night Wednesday, it looked like fans were in for more of the same. Entering the bottom of the ninth, Ryan Zimmerman had already ripped his 33rd home run of the year and John Lannan had pitched seven four-hit innings. But Washington trailed 4-2, three outs from a fitting endpoint to their home season.

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