Nationals 4, Rockies 2
-- The parameters were set in the hours before the first pitch, guidelines about what would be acceptable for the Washington Nationals in the thin air here, and what would not. The opponent over the weekend is the Colorado Rockies, none other than the worst team in the National League. If the Nationals have any hope of continuing a summer that has been both magical and maddening, they couldn't fritter away the three games at Coors Field.
"At least two," Nationals Manager Frank Robinson said. "It's a must. Two games is a must. We don't have to sweep, but to win two is a must. Anything less than that, it's a bad series. We got to pick it up. We have to start winning series."
The Nationals took a step in that direction Friday night, a 4-2 victory that stopped a streak in which they had lost five of six, one in which they jumped out to a rare first-inning lead, in which Esteban Loaiza was effective for six innings and in which the bullpen was its same old self, with closer Chad Cordero nailing down his 38th save in front of 28,598.
Afterward, the Nationals -- so frustrated for so long -- talked about long-term goals. There were signs, in this one win, that there is still life in this bunch, for Washington scored three in the first, getting key hits from two of its most important offensive cogs, an RBI double from first baseman Nick Johnson and a two-run single from right fielder Jose Guillen, who was hitting just .255 with runners in scoring position.
"It was great to not leave those people on base," Guillen said afterward, "like I've been doing all year."
Robinson, as is his nature, stewed a bit about how the Nationals didn't add on more than Brian Schneider's RBI double in the fourth, and was frustrated that Loaiza -- who won for the first time in four decisions -- allowed just three hits through six, but couldn't get out of the seventh. All the problems, Robinson knows, aren't solved with one win.
"Far from it," he said.
Still, there was an unmistakable sense of hope in the clubhouse, one absent for so long. It wasn't just the win. It was the rest of the weekend, with chances against the Rockies, and the series next week in Philadelphia and New York, facing two divisional opponents. They pulled within 51/2 games of the Atlanta Braves in the National League East, and remained three behind the Houston Astros in the wild-card race.
"Don't take anything away from the Rockies, but we need to win these ballgames here," said second baseman Jose Vidro, who went 2 for 3. "We got two tough series coming up with the Phillies and the Mets, and really, I got a good feeling that that's going to set everything up for us.
"If we don't play good these next three series, we're going to be sinking real bad. We got to hopefully come back home playing good baseball and be like two games under the Houston Astros or the Atlanta Braves."
Winning series is what the Nationals used to do, against almost any opponent in almost any ballpark. But since sweeping the Chicago Cubs July 1-3 at Wrigley Field, they have lost nine series and won one. When the team held a nearly two-hour meeting last Saturday, that was one message Loaiza delivered.
"I always say, even back in the day, we win the series against every team, we're going to be there," Loaiza said. "That's the way it was in the beginning of the season, in the first half. The second half, everything turned around."
Now, they are trying desperately to turn it back, and they send shaky Tony Armas Jr. -- 1-5 with a 7.49 ERA on the road -- to the mound Saturday, and budding ace John Patterson out on Sunday. The newfound optimism, though, wouldn't have been there without two key situations.
Loaiza (7-8) allowed a pair of singles to lead off the seventh, and the Rockies bunted the men to second and third. The right-hander pitched carefully to leadoff man Larry Bigbie, and ended up walking the bases full. With that, Robinson turned to right-hander Luis Ayala, who promptly got Luis Gonzalez to pop up to third baseman Vinny Castilla in foul ground.
The next move seemed obvious. Left-handed terror Todd Helton had already doubled twice, and his numbers -- .327 average and .574 slugging percentage against right-handers, .240 and .318 against lefties -- screamed for Robinson to bring in either lefty Joey Eischen or Mike Stanton. Ayala, for his part, was allowing left-handed hitters a .357 average.
Ayala stayed in. Robinson, who famously manages by "feel" and all but boasts that he pays little attention to numbers, was asked about his thought process.
"No thought process," he said. "He's there. I have confidence in him that he can do the job."
That Ayala did, throwing a sinker away that Helton popped up, ending the inning. In the eighth, Ayala allowed a homer to Jorge Piedra to cut the lead to 4-2, and after Garrett Atkins singled with one out, Robinson made the move for Eischen. The lefty, who has struggled this season, threw one pitch, a slider that cut in on J.D. Closser. It wasn't the pitch Eischen wanted, but Closser hit it directly at Castilla, who picked it off his shoe tops for one out, then hurled across the diamond to double up Atkins.
"It's a hell of a lot better than giving up a broken-bat single," Eischen said. "Maybe that's the kind of thing we need to get going."
For the first time in a long time, there was a sense they actually could get going.
"This time of the season, every game is important," Castilla said. "Every game you win and continue to have the atmosphere in the clubhouse like that, it's very important, because you need the confidence."