Nationals 6, Astros 5
When the Nationals arrived at spring training, Brandon Watson was just a kid filling a uniform. When the Nationals arrived in the nation's capital to bring baseball back to Washington for the first time in 34 years, Watson was roaming center field for the Class AA Harrisburg Senators, still a month from even moving to Class AAA. But when the Nationals arrived at their most crucial series thus far -- one that could determine whether they remain in the playoff race -- Watson was wearing a Nationals uniform, leading off in his first big league game.
"First day in the big leagues, just a lot of adrenaline," he said. "It was coming out of nowhere."
Which is exactly the place from which the Nationals' offense emerged Tuesday night. With their season hanging on yet another precipice and their offense in a monthlong funk, the Nationals broke out against the Houston Astros, using a season-high four homers -- including the first of Watson's career, in just his third major league at-bat -- to barely take a badly needed 6-5 victory in front of 34,255 at Minute Maid Park.
This wasn't by any means easy; nothing is these days for the Nationals. They had to overcome a two-run error by shortstop Cristian Guzman, one that allowed the Astros to climb within a single run after they had trailed by five. But closer Chad Cordero got the final four outs for his major league-leading 37th save, and the Nationals -- who had lost their last 13 games decided by one run -- finally squeezed one out. They improved to 33-3 in games in which they score at least five runs.
"One ballgame is not going to get their confidence sky-high," Manager Frank Robinson said. "It helps, but you have to continue it, build on it."
One ballgame, though, had ramifications that, had it slipped away, would have been nearly impossible to overcome. The victory not only ended a three-game losing streak, but pulled the Nationals within one game of the Astros in the National League wild-card race, and began the longest road trip of the year -- a 13-game jaunt through four cities -- in fine fashion. Watson went 2 for 5 in his first major league game, the spark General Manager Jim Bowden hoped for when he called him up for this long trek.
"It was a beautiful debut for the kid," Robinson said.
But the spark wasn't necessarily supposed to come this way. The Nationals, homer-happy? Certainly not at home, where RFK Stadium yields fewer long balls than any other park in baseball, and clearly has gotten into some of the heads of the home team. But in the cozy confines here, all is different. Brad Wilkerson, Brian Schneider, Vinny Castilla and Watson -- yes, the wispy 23-year-old who looks as if he might not be able to hit the ball out of the infield -- all hit solo shots.
"All year," Schneider said, "we've been waiting for this."
It backed up starting pitcher John Patterson, who allowed three earned runs -- all on a pair of homers to Houston third baseman Morgan Ensberg -- in 52/3 shaky innings, but still posted his sixth win.
In the sixth, it all nearly went for naught. First, the Nationals ended up on the wrong side of a bang-bang call from second base umpire Wally Bell on what would have been an inning-ending force out. Then, the kind of thing that has been happening over the last five weeks. Houston's Craig Biggio hit a grounder up the middle to Guzman, who may have had the previous play on his mind. Instead of flipping to Jose Vidro at second -- the exact play they had just missed, when Bell ruled that Vidro got to the bag too late -- Guzman threw to first. He had plenty of time to get Biggio, but the ball skipped in front of Nick Johnson, carrying all the way to the dugout. Two runs scored, making it 6-5, and Patterson -- playing just 110 miles from his home town of Orange -- was chased from the game.
But the Nationals' bullpen -- such a significant part of their first-half success -- held up, albeit barely. Luis Ayala pitched out of further trouble in the sixth, and Mike Stanton got a double-play ball in the seventh. Gary Majewski allowed a two-out triple to Jason Lane in the eighth, then walked Willy Taveras, but Cordero retired Biggio.
In the ninth, Cordero did the unthinkable, walking Lance Berkman to bring up Ensberg as the tying run. But he handled Ensberg nicely, striking him out on a 1-2 pitch on which he checked his swing. Cordero then got Mike Lamb to ground into a double play, and the sigh of relief from the Nationals' dugout was nearly audible.
"We got one in a row," Robinson said. "That's the way we have to look at it."