By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 22, 2010; D08
By the time Wil Nieves stood in the batter's box Wednesday night with the game in the balance, the Washington Nationals already had endured plenty. Their best player watched from the dugout, having left with an injury. They trailed by three runs after three innings. Their starting pitcher left his best pitches in the bullpen.
Rarely graceful and never easy on themselves, the Nationals nudged back above .500 again with a 6-4 victory over the Colorado Rockies in front of 11,191, the sparsest home crowd in team history. Nieves, perhaps the most unlikely candidate for such heroics, laced the game-winning double during a two-run eighth inning, one inning after Ryan Zimmerman had exited with an apparent right hamstring injury.
The Nationals have grown to expect hard victories. "Every game," starter John Lannan said, "is going to be a battle for us." They have been outscored by 18 runs, but they're clinging to a winning record and are 5-0 in games decided by two runs or less.
"Once you win a few of those games, you get a confidence in yourself," left fielder Josh Willingham said. "We've got it right now."
Of course, closer Matt Capps allowed a single and walked a batter with two outs, placing the tying run on first base. But he recovered by striking out pinch hitter Ian Stewart looking at a 94-mph fastball. Capps leads the league with seven saves in seven chances, and his tightrope style typifies his team.
"Just go with it," Manager Jim Riggleman said. "It got real interesting. But he was up to it."
Capps's save eased the blow of perhaps losing Zimmerman for the second time this year. Zimmerman hurt his right leg, not the same hamstring strain that forced him out of the starting lineup for five straight games last week. He tried to stretch a double into a triple with two outs in the seventh inning, but he slowed as he sprinted between first and second, stopping at second.
"It didn't feel anywhere close to as bad as the other one," Zimmerman said. "It felt more like a cramp."
Zimmerman did not rule out returning Thursday, but his status will depend on how he feels once he arrives at the park for the 4:35 p.m. game. Leaving Wednesday night stung "because we're playing really good baseball," he said.
For their third comeback win of the year, the game-winning rally started when Willingham roped a line drive down the third base line, smashed so hard it nearly ripped off Melvin Mora's glove before dropping to the dirt. Willingham moved to second when Willie Harris dropped a sacrifice bunt, a strategy that only tempted Rockies Manager Jim Tracy to instruct Rafael Betancourt to intentionally walk Adam Kennedy. "The smart move," Nieves said.
After Kennedy looked at four pitches, up came Nieves. Betancourt started him with an inside fastball, which Nieves swung early at and fouled off; "I got too excited," Nieves said. Betancourt came back with a slider. Nieves crunched a line drive to left-center field. Running to first, his heart skipped a beat when he realized Dexter Fowler, perhaps the fastest outfielder in the sport, was chasing his hit.
When the ball landed, Nieves felt relief and Willingham scored easily as Kennedy scooted to third base. Iv?n Rodr?guez pinch hit for Tyler Clippard, who retired six crucial outs in the seventh and eighth, striking out three. Rodr?guez rocked a sacrifice fly to left, scoring Kennedy with an insurance run.
The Nationals stayed in the game because Lannan navigated through constant trouble. In his five innings, Lannan allowed 11 hits and a walk, 12 base runners in 18 outs. He left the bases loaded in the first inning, and he would strand seven runners before his outing ended. He cruised through just one 1-2-3 inning.
"I felt great in the 'pen," Lannan said. "Everything went away from me in the game."
As Lannan labored, Nieves walked to the mound and peeled off his catcher's mask. The Nationals trailed 3-0 after three innings. Nieves told him, "I know you don't feel good. Keep us in the game. We're going to win this game."
Lannan did his part, holding the Rockies to one more run before handing off to Clippard. Later, Nieves backed up his promise with the game-winning hit. The Nationals, despite playing nine of their first 15 games against reigning playoff teams, have stayed above .500, seemingly a new twist to each win.
"We have great chemistry," Nieves said. "We're having fun."