By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 7, 2010; D01
Willie Harris had watched all of it. He sat in the Washington Nationals' dugout Thursday night, as he has on many nights, and waited and watched. He saw Scott Olsen come within five outs of the first no-hitter since baseball returned to Washington. He saw the disappointment and dread as Olsen lost history and then, nearly, lost the game. He saw the Nationals load the bases with no outs in the ninth.
Then, when called to pinch-hit, Harris acted. He walked from the on-deck circle, plopped a weight off of his bat and dug into the batter's box. On the second pitch he saw, Harris lined a game-winning single into right field. The Nationals poured onto the field and celebrated an exhilarating 3-2 victory over the Atlanta Braves before 17,131 at Nationals Park.
Olsen, who lost his no-hitter when David Ross ripped a one-out single in the eighth inning, settled for a no-decision, but only in the box score. "For all of us in this clubhouse, he won the game for us," catcher Ivan Rodriguez said.
With the rest of his teammates, Olsen mobbed Harris after his shot into right field. Earlier this season, Harris and Olsen had spoken in the Nationals' clubhouse when no one else was around.
"Something," Harris said, "is different about you."
Olsen, a year removed from major shoulder surgery, started this season in the minor leagues. The Nationals called him up after one Class AAA start, but Olsen still thinks about that very much, still allows it to drive him. "Very," he said softly Thursday night. "Very. Very. I'll leave it at that."
That's what Harris recognized. "I know the feeling," Harris said. " 'I'm going to come back, and I'm going to show these guys.' "
Harris has played against the Braves for three seasons since his one year with the team he grew up rooting for in Cairo, Ga. Every time he faces them, even now, he remembers that they did not offer him a new contract, that they chose to let him leave.
"Every time we play them, I'll have" a grudge, Harris said. "I mean, I grew up a Braves fan. I had an opportunity to play for them, to play for the best manager in the game. What else can a Georgia kid want? That's where the chip came."
For most of last night, Harris watched Olsen dominate Harris's former team. Entering the eighth, the Nationals led 2-0, after Adam Dunn and Rodriguez each hit a solo home run. Manager Jim Riggleman shifted Adam Kennedy to first base, removing Dunn, an inexperienced first baseman, from the game, and played steady utility infielder Alberto Gonzalez at second base. Olsen's teammates, as is the custom, were avoiding him in the dugout.
"Six outs away," Rodriguez said. "You're thinking about it."
Olsen started the eighth by striking out Matt Diaz looking at an 89-mph fastball, his eighth strikeout. Nationals Park buzzed and reserves filled the top of the dugout. Five outs to go, and only Melky Cabrera had reached base, on a walk to lead off the third inning.
Olsen threw Ross a 1-0, 83-mph change-up. Ross, unlike the rest of his teammates, was not fooled by the off-speed pitch. The ball skidded into left field. Olsen leaned backward on the mound and winced. The crowd rose and cheered. History no longer hung in the balance, but a game did. Rodr?guez came to the mound and told Olsen, "We got a ballgame going."
Olsen thought, "Get a double play." He would have had one if not for a Ryan Zimmerman throwing error. Nate McLouth then singled to load the bases, and Olsen's night ended suddenly. Tyler Clippard came on and surrendered a two-run single to Jason Heyward, ending Olsen's 20-inning scoreless streak and ending his chance at a win. Clippard closed the eighth with a double play, and then he did the same in the ninth.
The Nationals had a chance. Kennedy drew a leadoff walk against Peter Moylan. Up came Zimmerman, who christened Nationals Park with a walk-off homer against Moylan in 2007. He almost did it again, lacing a double off the right field wall. With men on second and third, Cristian Guzm?n was intentionally walked.
For the past few innings, Harris had been warming up in the batting cage, playing a game with Wil Nieves called "Up the Middle." They each tried to hit as many balls against the back of the cage as they could.
Now, Harris strode to the plate. Moylan knocked him down with a sidearm pitch to his ankles. Harris got up and dusted off his jersey. On the next pitch, he smoked the game-winning single. Afterward, Harris found Nieves and told him, "We got to play this game every day."
After being lifted in the eighth, Olsen had perched his left leg on the top step of the dugout, put his chin in his hand and stared out at the diamond, where the best night of his career was unraveling. Now, clad in sneakers and a red hooded sweatshirt, he celebrated with his teammates. Harris knew exactly how sweet it felt.
"Each individual person has to find what it is that makes them have that edge, have that mentality," Zimmerman said. "It's just something that I think this team as a whole has more this year than in the past."