By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 22, 2010; 12:35 AM
The Washington Nationals were veering toward another loss, playing inside a near-lifeless stadium during a near-hopeless situation. Ivan Rodriguez stood at the plate in the eighth inning with the Nationals down by two runs, two outs, the count 0-2, the season long lost.
Rodriguez told himself to stay back, see the ball. Felipe Paulino , a picther he once caught with the Houston Astros, threw him a curveball. And then all hell broke loose, the last thing you expected.
Rodriguez unleashed a swing that drove the ball high into the night and off the left field foul pole. The home run tied the score and, without warning, ignited a seven-run, two-out rally that lifted the Nationals to an 8-4 trouncing of the Astros before an announced 11,893 at Nationals Park. As eight consecutive men reached base in the eighth, the Nationals snapped a four-game losing streak and revealed for the smattering of fans present that they still have a pulse.
"We're going to get tested," said reliever Tyler Clippard, who earned his 10th win. "We're in last place in the standings. We only have a couple more weeks left in the season. It's going to be good for this club to see what we're made of. We've been going through some tough times lately. Everybody in this clubhouse is kind of looking around and seeing who's going to step up and who isn't."
The furious rally gave the Nationals their 63rd victory this season, a milestone for what it ensures: The Nationals, for the first time since 2007, will not lose 100 games. It is easy to forget in their slog of a season - "It felt like we already had 100," shortstop Ian Desmond said - but the Nationals at least made that slice of improvement.
"Certainly we want to raise the bar higher than that," Nationals Manager Jim Riggleman said. "But it's a step, I guess. We certainly aren't happy about the number of losses. The number of losses, if it's got a 9 in front of it or 1-0-0 in front of it, it's not good."
The Nationals had not scored more than six runs in a game in two weeks. And then Tuesday, they scored seven in one inning. After Rodriguez's home run, seven more Nationals reached with two outs, all on either a single or walk, as the Astros cycled through four relievers in the inning. After Justin Maxwell walked, Adam Kennedy provided the hit that gave the Nationals the lead for good, a single that scored Roger Bernadina.
The Nationals could embark on their improbable rally thanks to starter John Lannan, who turned a horrendous beginning into his fifth consecutive quality start. In the first inning, he could not locate his sinker in the lower half of the strike zone. He surrendered two consecutive singles to start the game, and Jason Michaels made it 3-0 with a two-run homer.
At one point this season, before the Nationals demoted him to Class AA for six weeks, Lannan may have crumbled. At this point, his confidence buoyed him.
"I could have easily given up," Lannan said. "Right now, I'm not ready to give up."
After the dreadful first inning, Lannan settled down. He retired 14 of the final 15 batters he faced and 12 in a row at one point, facing the minimum over his last five innings. He needed only 86 pitches in seven innings and used the same formula that righted his season, spotting his diving sinker low in the strike zone and keeping the ball out of the air. Of his 21 outs, Lannan retired 12 with groundballs. After the first inning, just two hitters hit the ball out of the infield.
"Even if I start off slow, I know I can still get out of jams and I know I can pitch," Lannan said. "First inning doesn't really dictate how the game's going to go. That would be the thing that knocked me out, not just earlier this year but the previous two years. The fact that I'm battling through rough innings and not really giving up, that's huge for me."
The Nationals did not produce their first hit against Astros starter J.A. Happ until the fifth inning, when Michael Morse flared the first pitch of the inning to center for a single. Rodriguez turned it into a threat with a single to center, pushing Morse to third with one out.
Presented with something remotely resembling a rally for the first time, the Nationals went about the business of squandering it. Bernadina tapped a ball pack to Happ, and Morse inexplicably bolted for home. Happ ran at Morse, chased him toward third base and tossed to Chris Johnson, who tagged Morse out.
With men on first and second, Maxwell struck out. Happ walked Lannan to resuscitate the rally, loading the bases with two outs. Danny Espinosa laced a line drive down the line, but Johnson snared it on a short hop and stepped on third.
The rally stalled, as the Nationals stumbled through "some poor at-bats and some questionable base running," Riggleman said. It would take three innings, but the Nationals would eventually start the only rally that mattered.
Nationals note: Clippard struck out his 100th batter of the season in the seventh inning, making him the first Nationals reliever to reach 100 strikeouts in a season and the sixth in Expos/Nationals history.