Nationals 3, Blue Jays 0
When Esteban Loaiza decided, finally, that the best way for him to secure a win would be to deliver the key hit himself, the fans in the box below Section 425 at RFK Stadium leapt to their feet. There was Condoleezza Rice -- sports fan, secretary of state -- standing and clapping. And sitting down in the corner to her right, munching on some ballpark food, was President Bush, the one fan no other team can boast.
By the time closer Chad Cordero finished the Nationals' 3-0 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays on a balmy Friday night in front of 36,689, Loaiza had posted six shutout innings and come up with a two-run double, Brad Wilkerson had added a solo homer, Bush and Rice had departed, and the club at the center of the free world still had a bit of a glow to it, what with the First Fan on hand.
"It was pretty cool, coming into the game and being able to look up in that box and see the president of the United States rooting for his home team," catcher Brian Schneider said. "There's no one else in the league that's going to be able to get that opportunity. It's just an awesome situation we're in."
In more ways than one. The victory was the Nationals' 11th straight at RFK, where they have won 15 of their last 16 to push the best home record in the majors to 25-9. They extended their lead in the NL East to a season-high four games over the second-place Atlanta Braves, who leap-frogged the Philadelphia Phillies. They improved to 2-0 in front of Bush, who hadn't returned since April 14, the first major league game in Washington in 34 years.
And they did it behind Loaiza (3-5), who woke up last week with a stiff neck, a pain that extended to his upper back and caused him to miss his last start. It's a wonder, by that point, that he didn't have a throbbing headache, one caused by mulling over the utter lack of run support he has experienced all year. The numbers are remarkable: Loaiza's ERA of 3.87 entering Friday night was just a half run per game worse than that of ace Livan Hernandez (3.38), but Hernandez has 10 wins, and Loaiza entered last night with two.
"We don't score when he's out there," Manager Frank Robinson said, "for some reason."
So the solution was simple. Loaiza watched the first two batters reach in the bottom of the second, then, not surprisingly, looked on as Schneider lined weakly to second and shortstop Cristian Guzman hit a lazy fly to center. With Loaiza coming up, Toronto starter Josh Towers looked like he would be out of the inning. Except Towers made a mistake.
"Looked like to me," Robinson said, "he lost a little focus out there with the pitcher up."
And it cost him. Loaiza jumped on Towers's first pitch, pulling it into left field, scoring Vinny Castilla easily from second, and getting a 2-0 lead when Junior Spivey motored all the way in from first, Loaiza's first RBI since July 2, 1998.
"That was the big play in the game, no doubt," Wilkerson said. "If you lay it in the middle of the plate for him, he's going to hit it hard somewhere a lot of times."
Enough that his 1-for-2 night raised his average to .233, 30 points better than Guzman. And from there, Loaiza made it stand up. He allowed base runners all night, including runners on first and second with nobody out in the sixth. But he calmly and craftily pitched out of each situation, ending his evening by getting the heart of the Blue Jays' lineup -- Aaron Hill, Vernon Wells and Eric Hinske -- to pop out, strike out and ground out, respectively.
After he was lifted for a pinch hitter, Loaiza's fate lay in the hands of the Nationals' reliable bullpen. But to get this win, Luis Ayala had to relieve a shaky Gary Majewski in the seventh, and Ayala himself had to pitch out of a first-and-second mess in the eighth. That left it to Cordero, who notched yet another save -- his 24th, and 21st consecutive opportunity converted -- by pitching a 1-2-3 ninth, the last out recorded on a lunging grab by left fielder Marlon Byrd.
Thus, Loaiza, with his 103rd career win, became second only to Fernando Valenzuela in wins by a Mexican-born pitcher. "That gives me chills," Loaiza said.
And the Nationals found yet another way to win. A two-run double. By the pitcher. In front of the president.
"To tell you the truth," Schneider said, "I don't care if we go all year long finding all these crazy ways to win -- as long as we keep winning."