By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 15, 2010; 11:48 PM
ATLANTA - The odds were against Justin Maxwell. Had to be. Maxwell had come to the plate with the bases loaded three times in his career and already hit two grand slams. Even that simply doesn't happen. Between them, in 315 at-bats with the bases loaded, Derek Jeter and Pete Rose have two.
But on Wednesday afternoon, there was Maxwell, a player sent to the minors six times the past two years, rounding third with three Washington Nationals teammates starting at him from home plate.
Maxwell's improbable grand slam gave him a lasting memory from a trying season and lifted the Nationals to a 4-2 victory and a series win over the Atlanta Braves. In front of 19,237 at Turner Field, the Nationals embraced their spoiler role and dampened the Braves' postseason hopes.
Before last weekend, the Nationals had not won a series on the road in 17 consecutive tries. Now they have won two in a row, including one against a team fighting for its playoff life. The Nationals' offense vanished after Maxwell's rocket, but John Lannan allowed two runs in six innings, Sean Burnett recorded five critical outs out of the bullpen and Drew Storen slammed the door with a nine-pitch save.
As the Nationals packed for their flight to Philadelphia, they felt happiest about Maxwell's huge hit. Maxwell has shuttled between Class AAA Syracuse and Washington three times this year, but his potential and his likable manner make him an easy player for teammates and coaches to root for.
"Maxey is such a class individual," Manager Jim Riggleman said. "He's a guy that you pull for and you have patience with because he's all about the team. He goes through struggles. Anything you call on him to do, he's got a great frame of mind."
But Maxwell, an Olney native and Maryland alum, has been unable to thrive in the majors. He takes early batting practice with hitting coach Rick Eckstein nearly every day, trying to find the position that will allow him to shorten his swing and reduce swings and misses. Maxwell entered Wednesday hitting .132 with 31 strikeouts in 76 at-bats.
"He possesses all the tools of a player you want on your ball club," Eckstein said. "He's got the ability. He's willing to work for it. He has that. Now it's time to put the package together. I think he'll do it. He's smart enough. He works hard enough."
Maxwell's dreary performance, though, earned him near-constant spot on the bench. Before Wednesday he had started seven games since he joined the Nationals on Aug. 2. He had taken to studying bullpens and managing in his head, trying to guess which reliever he was most likely to face as a pinch hitter.
So Maxwell cherished his start in left field Wednesday. He walked up to teammate Willie Harris before the game and said, "I'm just swinging today."
"There's always an incentive when you get a chance to hit," Maxwell said. "I got a bat and I'm up there. You just try to make the most of every situation. I don't know when I'm going to get them."
And in his first at-bat, Maxwell stepped into a pivotal moment. Michael Morse doubled with one out. Wilson Ramos followed with a screamer to left, a line-drive single hit so hard Morse remained on second base. Alberto Gonzalez walked to load the bases for Maxwell for the fourth time in his career.
"He's not afraid of the situation," Riggleman said. "That's for sure."
With one out, Maxwell just wanted to put the ball in play, drive in a run. Left-hander Mike Minor threw Maxwell a fastball for ball one. He followed with an inside, 91-mph fastball. Maxwell turned on the pitch and laced it down the left field line. The Nationals in the dugout lurched to the top step and watched the ball zip into the seats. The Nationals had a 4-0 lead.
"I'm so happy for him," Lannan said.
Lannan made Maxwell's slam stand up. He submitted his sixth quality start in his last eight outings, pitching around eight hits and two walks in six innings. His biggest jam came in his final inning, when, with the Nationals clinging to a two-run lead, he faced David Ross.
Lannan relied on his newest ally: the strikeout. He whiffed Ross swinging at a 74-mph curveball in the dirt, his sixth strikeout in six innings. Since Lannan returned from Class AA Harrisburg on Aug. 1, he has struck out 6.63 batters every nine innings. Before the Nationals demoted him, his career rate was 4.3 strikeouts per nine innings.
Once Lannan exited, the Nationals survived a harrowing seventh inning. Riggleman replaced Lannan with Joel Peralta, who induced a pop-up to shallow center from pinch hitter Eric Hinske. Nyjer Morgan charged, called off the infielders and then lost the ball in the sun and let it drop.
Hinske wound up on second. He moved to third when Omar Infante dropped a sacrifice bunt. Infante would have been safe if one of the 6 billion people on Earth other than Ryan Zimmerman was the third baseman. But Zimmerman charged, avoided a collision with Peralta and made an diving, off-balance bullet throw to first.
Burnett escaped from there and Storen took care of the ninth. The Nationals had completed a turnaround and cost the Braves playoff position in the process. Next up are the Phillies, the team ahead of the Braves in the NL East.
"It's not necessarily important what their records are," Storen said. "We're maybe out of it this year, but we're going to show, hey, we can do some things."
After Wednesday's win, the Nationals poured from the dugout, lined up and shook hands. Starting pitcher Livan Hernandez and pitching coach Steve McCatty joked on the middle of the diamond. On Monday night, the Nationals languished in a six-game losing streak. On Wednesday afternoon, they were laughing their way to Philadelphia. Now what are the odds of that?