Josh Willingham's home run lifts Nationals over Orioles in extra innings

By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 24, 2010

The Washington Nationals had waited 19 days to arrive at the point they reached Sunday afternoon. One out and one cross-country flight separated them from the end of the most grueling chunk of their schedule. Their unshakable closer was on the mound. Finally, they would be able to relax.

The Nationals made themselves wait a little longer. In one instant, they were teetering toward a devastating, unlikely loss. In the next, fireworks exploded, Nationals tumbled out of the dugout and Josh Willingham's game-winning home run settled in the visitor's bullpen.

With Willingham's walk-off, 10th-inning home run, the Nationals jumped back above .500 with a 4-3 victory over the Baltimore Orioles before 27,535 at Nationals Park. Willingham's blast saved Matt Capps, who blew a two-run lead in the ninth after John Lannan turned in his second straight strong outing.

The Nationals flew out of Washington late Sunday, bound for San Francisco. Starting Tuesday, they will play 10 road games without a day off, completing a stretch of 20 road games in 26 days. For now, they can relish a winning homestand, their first day not reporting to the park in 20 days and a 10-10 record while playing those games without a break.

Faced with their first losing spell this season, the Nationals found another way to separate themselves from their brutal past. Days ago, they had lost seven out of eight games. They climbed out of that rut with two straight wins, completing their 20-game grind at .500. And still, they weren't satisfied.

"To be honest with you, we should have done a lot better," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "We had a few games we did some stupid things and gave away. We could have done a lot better."

They could still savor a victory, even after Capps revealed something new to his Nationals teammates: "He's human," Zimmerman said.

Capps could not close out the game in the ninth. Capps struck out Ty Wigginton to start the inning, and he nearly retired Luke Scott on a grounder up the middle -- Cristian Guzmán fielded it in shallow center field and made a strong throw, Scott beating it by a step. Adam Jones followed with a double to right field. Matt Wieters scored Scott with an RBI groundout.

Up came Julio Lugo and the moment Capps had so often owned: two outs in the ninth, the game-tying run breathing down on home plate. Capps put two strikes on Lugo, and soon another comeback would be dashed. This time, Capps fell off the high-wire. Lugo flared a single to shallow right, scoring Jones and tying the game.

"We really feel good about the way he threw," Manager Jim Riggleman said. "I think Matt feels real good about the way he pitched. Give the Orioles credit."

The Nationals had to play extra innings, where they had not won a game all season. Reliever Doug Slaten cruised through a 1-2-3 10th inning, giving the Nationals another chance. Willie Harris grounded out to start the inning, and Orioles closer Alfredo Simon hurt himself covering first base and left the game. Willingham stood on deck.

"When the game is on the line," Nyjer Morgan said, "there's no better person to have up to bat than Josh Willingham."

Willingham watched Cla Meredith warm up, trying to get a feel for Meredith and how he might approach the at-bat. Willingham had never faced Simon, and he was 1 for 3 with a single against Meredith. He felt the weight of the moment. Already this year, he had hit a game-tying home run in the seventh inning and a game-winner in the eighth.

"That's why you play the game," Willingham said. "You play the game to be in that situation."

Meredith started Willingham with a 2-1 count. Willingham did not think about hitting a home run, only "trying to get a good pitch to hit and hit it hard," he said. Meredith sidearmed a fastball that stayed up and over the plate. Willingham crushed it. He knew, as soon as it left his bat, the game was over.

Willingham circled the bases, stone-faced as ever, as his teammates poured from the dugout and gathered at home plate and waited for Willingham. "I've learned not to take your helmet off," he said. "You get hit pretty hard."

The Nationals returned home only five days ago, and Sunday they packed their suitcases again, ready for another 10 days away from the District. When the Nationals return home, another signpost in their season will likely greet them. On the first day they get back to Nationals Park, their starting pitcher will probably be Stephen Strasburg.

"I'll tell you what," Storen said. "If he is with us when we get back, it's going to be a lot of fun."

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