Role Players Make Noise In Nats' Win Over Marlins

Nationals 5, Marlins 3

Josh Willingham welcomes home teammate Wil Nieves after a pinch-hit, two-run double by Mike Morse.
Josh Willingham welcomes home teammate Wil Nieves after a pinch-hit, two-run double by Mike Morse. (By Jeffrey Boan -- Associated Press)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 12, 2009

MIAMI, Sept. 11 -- At Land Shark Stadium, half-emptiness is but a farfetched aspiration, so perhaps no venue in sports is better-suited for measured doses of enthusiasm. When the starring roles, on a given night, belong to Mike MacDougal, J.D. Martin, Tyler Clippard and Mike Morse, excitement ought not to hit overdrive. Each of those players has spent weeks or months this year with Class AAA Syracuse. Each is proving something -- slowly, steadily, possibly.

In the aftermath of Friday's 5-3 win against the Florida Marlins, the Washington Nationals' clubhouse inverted its pecking order. Adam Dunn and Ryan Zimmerman both homered, but they changed quietly, unbothered by reporters. Martin, who pitched five two-run innings, matching Florida ace Josh Johnson, stood near his locker and said: "I hope [I'm proving myself]. I'm doing everything I can."

MacDougal, who notched a five-out save, shutting down the comeback-ready Marlins after the tying run reached base, said, "We probably don't want to make it that exciting, but we'll take 'em." And Morse, who contributed the go-ahead pinch-hit double, acknowledged that this coming-off-the-bench business was a tough gig -- but perhaps it was emerging as his opportunity to stick in the big leagues.

"It's very tough to crack this lineup," Morse said. "If this is what I'm doing right now, I'm going to try to do it the best I can."

The Nationals won't win many games strictly behind players such as Morse and Clippard. They are role players. But with the season down to its final weeks, the Nationals are hoping to identify a few who might belong. Clippard's two scoreless innings Friday lowered his ERA to 3.02. Martin (4-4) has a 3.31 ERA in his last six starts. MacDougal, with 15 saves, should return next year as the closer. And Morse, acquired in a minor league midseason trade with Seattle, has four RBI in his last two at-bats, both pinch hits.

"He's given us great at-bats," interim manager Jim Riggleman said of Morse.

Morse grew up in Fort Lauderdale, and he knows better than most the eerie, halogen glow of nighttime baseball in South Florida. He joked that some 200 in attendance on Friday were friends and family. Given that home plate umpire Tim Welke was often the loudest voice in the stadium, Morse's crack against the center field fence in the sixth, which broke a 2-2 tie, produced perhaps the top decibel point of the night.

"I was a Marlins fan. Oh, yeah," Morse said. "When we could, we'd come to Marlins games when I was a kid. And like what I said with my family here, it felt good to play in front of friends and family."

The present condition of Land Shark Stadium suppresses, with breathtaking success, the grand excitement of a mid-September playoff push. The stadium is equidistant from Miami and Fort Lauderdale, far enough from both that residents in neither area feel inclined to visit. At game time, a patch of black watercolor clouds pushed across the sky, threatening a deluge. As such, the Marlins' homer-happy lineup is a spectacle best viewed from the living room sofa.

The Marlins won't be here for long. So long as the next years pass really, really fast. The left field fence -- a sprawling teal scoreboard-clock facade -- features a banner marked with four bold-letter years: 1993, 1997, 2003 and 2012. In the first year, the Marlins began playing baseball. In the middle two years, they won world championships. In the final year, they'll be emancipated from the only stadium they've ever known. A "game countdown" sign is plastered right near the foul pole, in fact. Only 170 more home games to go.

An announced crowd of 15,247 -- maybe they counted the eyeballs instead of the heads -- had reason to note the outfield wall's various embellishments, if only because balls kept flying over them. Dunn, in the first inning, squirted a Johnson outside fastball down the opposite field line, dropping his 37th home run of the year about two feet beyond the 330-foot sign. A half-inning later, noted Nationals demon Hanley Ramírez blazed a Martin change-up over the National League scoreboard -- a good 410 feet from home plate, and probably 200 feet from the closest fan.

Martin and Johnson exchanged zeroes through the fifth inning, though, and neither team managed a clutch hit until the sixth, when Morse came to the plate with two on and two outs. Facing right-hander Brian Sanches, a former National, Morse worked the count full and then plugged a fastball to dead center. Back it went, sending center fielder Cameron Maybin on a high-speed chase. Maybin reached the wall, but only in time to collide with the padding with an awkward leap. Morse ended up on second with a two-run double, and Washington had a 4-2 lead.

"It's a mental approach you've got to have," Morse said. "It's your one at-bat for the whole game, and you can't give it away at all."

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