By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 5, 2010; D01
He will not climb the Nationals Park mound for another four days, and already Stephen Strasburg has filled the place. On Friday night, the biggest crowd since opening day poured through the stadium's gates, spurred by the mere possibility of Strasburg's presence.
Strasburg's arrival hasn't happened yet, and already it has had an effect on the Washington Nationals. Rather than dwell on their sour road trip, they could thrive on the energy the crowd brought and the promise it portended. "This," one Nationals player said before the game, "is exactly what we need right now."
In a 4-2 victory over the Cincinnati Reds, the Nationals reversed the ills that shaped their dismal, 10-game road trip. Welcomed by an announced 33,774 fans, the Nationals pulled out a close victory rather than squandering one and snapped their ugly, three-game losing skid.
After their defense had betrayed them with six errors in two days, Roger Bernadina made a pivotal diving catch. After they couldn't summon a clutch hit, Ian Desmond drove in the game-winning run with an RBI single in the seventh. After Matt Capps had ended three straight appearances with a hangdog trudge into the dugout, he recorded his 18th save with a scoreless ninth. It all happened in a packed ballpark.
"It just added to the benefit of being home," said reliever Drew Storen, who pitched a scoreless eighth inning. "We had a long, frustrating road trip. We had a couple games on the road like this where it just kind of fell through our hands. It was good to come back tonight in a front of a good crowd."
Before they designated June 8 as the night for Strasburg's debut, the Nationals never indicated when Strasburg would become a major league player. But media speculation and fans aligning their calendar with Strasburg's pitching schedule had long targeted Friday night. In the days leading up to Friday, as scalpers tried to unload, some tickets could be had for $3 or less.
Originally, they wanted Stephen Strasburg. They got Liván Hernández, and what they got wasn't bad. He navigated around eight hits and four walks in six innings, allowing only two runs. His outing gave the Nationals a chance, and they finally made the necessary plays and received the necessary breaks.
In the seventh, Josh Willingham led with a single. Bernadina lofted a lazy fly to left center, but Drew Stubbs and Jonny Gomes collided and the ball popped loose. Up came Desmond, and Manager Jim Riggleman called for a bunt.
When Desmond walked to the plate, he wanted to hit, to decide the game. Once he saw the bunt sign, "I wasn't mad," Desmond said. "I think I'm a good bunter." On the first pitch, he pulled his bat back and took a called strike. He fouled the second pitch back.
Now, he had to hit. "You got to really do something here," Desmond told himself. "Let's go. Just put something hard in play."
Desmond took two balls, then lined a single into left field, scoring Willingham with the go-ahead run. Desmond upped his batting average to .379 with runners in scoring position and .333 with runners in scoring position and two outs.
Bernadina scored on a shallow sacrifice fly from pinch-hitter Willie Harris, Stubbs's throw bounding off the mound. And then mayhem broke loose. Reds catcher Carlos Hernandez fired to third, trying to nail Desmond's aggressive move. Desmond slid in safely, but over the base. As Scott Rolen kept the tag on, the third base umpire ruled him safe. Out came Reds Manager Dusty Baker, and over from first came notoriously active crew chief Joe West. He reversed the call, leading to third base coach Pat Listach's objection and Desmond's ejection.
"I didn't say anything to him," Desmond said. "He didn't say anything to me. I just dropped my helmet and he said, 'You're out of here.' "
The Nationals entered the final innings tied only because of Bernadina's diving catch. With men on first and second and two outs in the sixth, Hernández threw his 111th pitch of the game to reliever Micah Owings, perhaps the best-hitting pitcher in baseball. Owings flared it down the right field line. Bernadina sprinted toward the line, the runners bolting around the bases. "I followed my instinct," he said.
As he reached the warning track, Bernadina dove, reached and made the catch. The grab preserved Hernandez's quality start and kept the score knotted at 2.
"Huge," Desmond said. "It pretty much saved the game."
The Nationals didn't solve all of their problems. They made an error -- a bad throw by Wil Nieves -- for the 10th straight game. They stranded 12 runners, including three by Adam Dunn, who is 0 for 22 with runners in scoring position and two out this season. But they earned a win that meant more than a typical victory.
"It was a rough road trip for us," said reliever Tyler Clippard, who picked up his eighth win with a scoreless seventh. "It was good to come back home in front of a good crowd."
Of course, it wasn't easy -- 23 of their past 30 games have been decided by one or two runs. The Nationals and Reds have played more squeakers than any other teams, 34 and 32, respectively. The rest of the weekend promises to pack more drama. They might even be the kind of games a ballpark full of people want to watch.