Nationals Overcome the Odds in Phoenix

Harris's 3-Run Homer In 7th Is the Key Blow: Nationals 7, Diamondbacks 4

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 31, 2008; 2:02 AM

PHOENIX, May 30 -- No matter how Washington Nationals Manager Manny Acta configured this match-up in the hours before Friday evening's baseball game, the odds forecasted doom. The Diamondbacks had a pitcher who dominated right-handed batters. The Nationals had right-handed batters who chiefly excelled at getting dominated. Acta had a bench of alternate options, true, but the slump that had swallowed his team reached from top to bottom, and right to left.

The nine names that formed the Nationals' lineup justified little hope for slump-busting. Acta placed Felipe López, Elijah Dukes and Wily Mo Peña on the bench. He swapped them with Willie Harris, Ryan Langerhans and Rob Mackowiak -- all lefties. The pitcher they'd soon face, Micah Owings, had a better hitting track record (with a lifetime .316 average) than any of them.

Then again, odds and slumps are much alike: full of surprise, defiant against forecast. With an unlikely formula, the Nationals offense -- at least for one night -- shed all of its haplessness, defeating Arizona, 7-4, on the strength of several pleasant novelties, like two-RBI hit, and even a three-run homer.

Almost all of Acta's moves worked, but none more so than the insertion of Harris, a utility player with a .172 average. In the seventh inning, with the game tied at 3, and with Mackowiak and the just-inserted Dukes aboard, Harris swatted an 0-1 fastball from Owings just far enough to clear the fence in right. A faint gasp from the 25,391 at Chase Field saluted Harris's trot around the bases.

"I thought it might be a double," Harris said "It was more of a line drive than most. And I'm by far not a home run hitter."

Harris's ninth career home run furnished the Nationals with a 6-3 lead.

And it offered a sniff of the stuff that builds confidence.

"I'm happy for a guy like Willie," Acta said. "He brings so much energy to our club every single day ¿ He comes out and [does] extra hitting almost every single day. He doesn't put his head down. That's why I'm happy things worked out for him."

Washington's lineup for this game, with Harris leading off, had represented a momentary but abrupt departure from the team's strategy of sticking with youth, struggles be darned. Five of the nine were 30 or older. None were homegrown draftees. Just two -- Lastings Milledge and Cristian Guzman -- had started on Opening Day.

An unforeseen assemblage? Yes. Unforeseen, just like the team's last-place ranking in batting average (.233).

For the first third of the season, the lack of offense had taken its toll. Hitting coach Lenny Harris believed that some players had started to doubt themselves, or doubt how much longer they'd stay in the majors. "How long do I got?" he said. "I know that's going through their heads."

Lenny Harris thought back to his own slump in 1989, just weeks after being traded from Cincinnati to Los Angeles. He was 24 at the time. "I went 0-for-17," he said.

He worried, and stopped listening to music, and tried to remind himself to keep a short memory. One day, Orel Hershiser, one of the team's star pitchers, commented to Harris, "Man, we might send you to Albuquerque the way you're going."

Then, an infield hit changed everything. Harris reached first safely, felt the weight lift and kept hitting the rest of the season. "Wow!" he recalled saying to himself. "I'm out of this slump!"

Granted, one game with seven runs and nine hits doesn't reverse a slump, especially with the pitchers that await Washington later this series, Brandon Webb and Dan Haren. "It won't be easy," Acta said.

Then again, Owings doesn't unravel easily, either. He entered Friday holding opponents to a .226 average; right-handers were hitting just .196. Somehow, Washington managed to cause damage with hitters of all kinds. Dmitri Young collected two hits, Guzman collected three. Catcher Jesús Flores -- who left the game in the seventh after being twice knocked in the mask by foul tips -- contributed a two-RBI single in the second.

After the game, Flores said he felt OK. The headache and nausea had dissipated, and tests indicated no concussion.

On account of Washington's offense, its pitchers had a night to operate without requiring perfection. Tim Redding turned in a passable start -- three runs, 5 1/3 innings -- but walked five, struck out just one and again ran into trouble the third time through the order. A bullpen trio of Joel Hanrahan, Luis Ayala and Jon Rauch allowed one run in the final 3 2/3.

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