By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 11, 2010; D01
NEW YORK -- On Monday night, the Washington Nationals knew they were going to play their most consequential game in more than four years without Matt Capps and Tyler Clippard. The dominant duo at the back end of the bullpen, the league leaders in saves and wins, had been overworked. Even when two of the Nationals' most valuable players received a break, one thing didn't change.
"When we lace it up," reliever Brian Bruney said, "we're going to give you nine innings of hell."
While Clippard and Capps watched, Miguel Batista saved Washington's third straight victory, a 3-2 win over the New York Mets before 29,313 at Citi Field. The Nationals survived as much as they won, their pitchers allowing 12 hits and stranding 11 runners. But again, they cobbled together a victory, their league-leading eighth decided by one run.
The Nationals entered tied with the Mets for second place. After Iván Rodríguez went 4 for 4, Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Kennedy hit back-to-back solo home runs and Nationals pitchers danced around constant danger, Washington moved to four games above .500 for the first time since Sept. 17, 2005.
"For a lot of guys on this team, it's the only Washington Nationals they've ever known," General Manager Mike Rizzo said before the game. "I think the significance of it is that this isn't 2008 or 2009 anymore. This is 2010. Phrase it whatever you want, new regime or whatever. Our plan was to expect to win, prepare to win and perform to win. That's where we're at."
Their latest may have been the most improbable. A 39-year-old journeyman closing out the franchise's most significant game in more than four years? Why not? Their 38-year-old catcher had already raised his batting average to .393.
Manager Jim Riggleman had been worried for weeks about overusing Capps and Clippard, who have appeared in 17 and 16 games, respectively. Even in games he didn't pitch last week, Capps had warmed up in all of them. The rest of the bullpen, which had often faltered this year, understood they would be leaned on Monday.
"There was nothing said down there," Tyler Walker said. "There was no rallying cry. We knew what was going to go on."
In the middle of the seventh inning, bullpen coach Jim Lett ambled over to Batista and told him, "You should have the ninth."
"I'm ready," Batista said. "That's what I'm here for. I'm here to pitch."
Batista had saved 39 games in his 16-year career, 35 of them in 2005. "You never get used to that feeling," Batista said. "You get a different rush when you go out there with the game on the line. When you go to close, it's do or die."
Batista inherited a two-run lead, then allowed a one-out home run to Angel Pagan, slicing the lead to one. He struck out Luis Castillo for the second out, but then surrendered a single to Alex Cora. Up came Jason Bay, the potential winning run, but Batista forced him to check his swing feebly for strike three.
Batista's surprise save came after Bruney atoned for recent struggles. Bruney entered with one out in the eighth inning, the two runners on base representing the runs that could tie the score. First, he struck out Jeff Francoeur. With Rod Barajas at the plate, Bruney fired a ball that hit the backstop about 10 feet up, moving the runners up to second and third.
With the count 3-2 to Barajas, Bruney fired a chest-high, 93-mph fastball. Barajas popped up to short. The inning sealed, Bruney walked calmly off the field, stopping only to receive a high-five from Rodríguez.
From start to finish, Nationals pitchers invented ways to get in and out of trouble. In the first inning, Luis Atilano escaped a bases-loaded, two-out jam with two strikeouts. In the fourth, he escaped with a zero after putting a runner on third with one out.
Atilano exited the game with one out in the sixth, having allowed no runs on his 25th birthday while striking out five, inefficient but effective. In jogged Doug Slaten, just called up Sunday, to throw his first major league pitch this season with men on first and second base and one out.
Ike Davis squibbed a soft line drive to the left side of the infield. Zimmerman bolted to the middle of the diamond, nearly to the pitcher's mound, and caught the ball on a sprint. He peeked at first and noticed Wright inching off the bag. In one motion, he rifled the ball to first. Wright dove back to the base, but not in time.
Walker did his part in the seventh, relieving Slaten. He froze José Reyes with a wicked 3-2 slider, stranding the go-ahead run at first base. The Nationals' patchwork bullpen would continue to stifle the Mets, finding a new way to win a game.
In past seasons, Zimmerman said, the Nationals always seemed to do whatever it took to lose games. That, like so much else, has changed.
"What happened in the last couple years in Washington is already over," Rodríguez said. "This is 2010. We have a good team. We focus on now."