Nationals 6, Phillies 3
Back in May, when things were just starting to go right for the Washington Nationals, Manager Frank Robinson hobbled onto the field at RFK Stadium and argued that a ball hit by Atlanta's Brian Jordan, one that was ruled a home run, should be called foul. The umpires met, discussed the matter, and ruled the ball foul.
Monday night, when Preston Wilson launched a ball toward right-center field at Citizens Bank Park that ricocheted back onto the field of play, first base umpire Alfonso Marquez put his hand in the air and twirled it around -- a home run. But Philadelphia Phillies right fielder Bobby Abreu, positioned directly under the ball, immediately disagreed, saying it had hit a fan who reached over the fence. Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel argued as well.
Yet it was all in vain. The homer, Wilson's second of the night, remained a homer, Livan Hernandez pitched eight innings of five-hit ball, and the Nationals went on to a 6-3 victory over the Phillies that got a crucial four-game series off to a perfect start.
But even considering all that, might there be something else going on here, an indication that the Nationals are not only beginning to snap out of their five-week funk, but are having karma turn back their way as well?
"I'm not going to jump on the wagon and say, 'Yes, indeedy, here we are. We're back,' " Robinson said.
There are, however, some signs, undeniable ones. The victory was the Nationals' fourth in a row and moved them back into second place in the National League East, five games behind the idle Atlanta Braves. They leapfrogged the Phillies in both the division and wild-card races, remaining one game behind Houston. Philadelphia is 11/2 behind the Astros for the wild card, 51/2 behind the Braves in the division.
And while the standings are a matter of daily discussion, the schedule analyzed and dissected, the Nationals understood during their horrid July that the only way they would remain in contention for a playoff berth would be to improve their play.
"Hopefully," catcher Brian Schneider said, "we're doing that."
They did it Monday night both at the plate and on the mound. Wilson's two homers and four RBI represented his best game since he arrived in a July 13 trade with Colorado, and were added to solo shots by Nick Johnson and Schneider. In the first seven games of this season-long 13-game road trip, the Nationals have hit 14 homers, a sign that -- in hitter-friendly parks such as those here, in Colorado and in Houston -- they can display some pop. In the first 111 games of their season, they had not hit four homers in the same game. Monday night, they did it for the second time on this road trip.
"What's important," outfielder Jose Guillen said, "is how we're hitting with men on base."
That Wilson's homers, his 20th and 21st of the season, were both two-run shots wasn't lost on the Nationals, and continued their success in stringing hits together on this road trip. Wilson's first shot came in the first, after Johnson had already homered, a fastball that he sent deep to center, scoring Guillen ahead of him, making it 3-0. The second came in the third, after Hernandez had given up two runs in the bottom of the first, and was much of the talk afterward.
"I saw it," said Wilson, who watched a replay. "It hit a fan in the hands and then came down."
For a moment, there was confusion on the field. Second base umpire Ted Barrett indicated fan interference. But the call belonged to Marquez, the first base ump. He signaled home run. Abreu argued the fan reached over the fence and interfered with the ball. Marquez said the ball hit the fan in the chest, and ricocheted back into play. The umpires huddled, and the homer stood.
"That home run," Manuel said, "may have taken some starch from us."
If it didn't, Hernandez completed the job. He allowed those two runs in the first -- an inning in which opposing hitters are batting .315 against him -- and may have cost himself one when he made an ill-advised cutoff of a throw from Guillen, who was playing left field. Chase Utley scored on the play, making it 3-2 Washington, despite the fact that "maybe, we would've had a play," Schneider said. Regardless, Hernandez should have been backing up the plate, not cutting off the throw.
"I try to get out of the first inning, but it no happen," Hernandez said. "So I try to keep the game at two runs."
That part worked. After Pat Burrell's two-run single in the first, he retired 15 of the next 16 men and went on to improve to 14-5 on the season, lowering his ERA to 3.45. More important, he shook off his past two starts in which he had allowed nine earned runs in just 112/3 innings.
"I keep my head up," Hernandez said, "and go and try to do a better job."
He was speaking for himself, but could have been talking for all the Washington players around him, those who may have endured their worst stretch of baseball. Monday was another indication of a key for the Nationals: Score five runs, and win. They are now 36-4 in such games. During their slump, when they went 8-22, they scored five or more runs just four times. In the first seven games of this road trip, they have scored five or more five times and are 5-2.
So does a four-game winning streak mean they're back? Robinson won't bite.
"It certainly has been a nice mixture," he said, "and the offense has come to life."
It may have been joined by a little karma, too.