Nationals 7, Mets 4
By the time the ninth inning arrived Sunday, the Washington Nationals' body language all but screamed, "Please, please take us home!" They had already endured 12 games on a 13-game road trip. They had the New York Mets down by four runs. A crowd of 42,412 at Shea Stadium that had been placid all day had started to file out.
And yet the Nationals gave everyone reason to come back. They booted two balls, the first by closer Chad Cordero, the second by first baseman Nick Johnson on what would have been the final out of the game, right in the spot where Bill Buckner stood those 19 years ago, shooting similarly through the wickets. Suddenly, Mets third baseman David Wright, a dangerous rookie, was at the plate representing the tying run.
"We don't do anything easy," Manager Frank Robinson said.
Cordero, though, averted disaster, striking out Wright with runners on first and third to close out a 7-4 victory over the Mets, one that allowed the Nationals to head to the clubhouse, the showers and eventually the train south to Union Station having won seven of the 13 games on the trip. They scuffled. They missed opportunities. But they survived.
"We didn't bury ourselves," outfielder Brad Wilkerson said.
When the Nationals last played at RFK Stadium, they were swept by the middling San Diego Padres, and they headed to the road for two weeks trailing the Atlanta Braves by 51/2 games, then a season high, in the National League East and were two games back of Houston in the wild-card race. Those margins grew to 61/2 and three games, respectively, after they began the trip by losing two of three to the Astros.
At the end of the road trip, though, they were within five games of the Braves in the division. And because every team ahead of them in the wild-card race also won Sunday, they remained 11/2 games behind Philadelphia, also narrowly trailing Houston and Florida.
"We were in a big rut, and we weren't playing well at all," catcher Brian Schneider said. "But I think we're playing better now. We're starting to put a couple more runs on the board. I think our offense came to life a little on this road trip. Pitching's not a factor. We need to continue to try to get them some runs."
They did that Sunday, hanging six runs on Mets starter Kris Benson in the first with seven straight two-out hits, driving Benson out after just two-thirds of an inning, the shortest start of his career. That took the pressure off right-hander Esteban Loaiza, who had a comfortable cushion before he even threw a pitch.
"That was nice," Loaiza said.
But the evaluation of the entire trip wasn't quite as simple. After Houston, they swept three in Colorado, where the Rockies reside as the NL's worst team; split four in Philadelphia; and lost the first two to the Mets. They will play six games against Cincinnati and St. Louis in Washington this week. A 7-6 road trip, as Robinson said, is "not a disaster, but we wanted better."
"We needed to have played better and won more ballgames on this road trip," Robinson said. "We could've gotten ourselves right back, right in the thick of this thing, if we had played just a little better. Just a little better."
Robinson is correct. Five of the six losses on the trip came by one run, ballgames that were once the Nationals' specialty. Robinson could tick off the near misses in his head and point to specific cases in each game in which, had someone, as he said, "stuck their nose in there and get the tough hit," Washington may have won. Friday night's 1-0 loss to New York right-hander Jae Seo stands out. So does a 2-1 defeat in Philadelphia in the first half of a doubleheader on Thursday, or even a 4-3 loss to the Phillies the night before. They were all opportunities lost, and, as Robinson said, "the season's getting short."
"Overall, and especially this time of year, we've got to take care of business better than we took care of business on this road trip," Robinson said. "We've got to win some games that we should win. . . . That's what we didn't do on this road trip. I know we could've won two or three more ballgames on this road trip very easily. Very easily."
Even with the harrowing ninth, Sunday's was the easiest win in the past week. The six-run first included doubles from Ryan Church, appearing as the leadoff man for the first time in his career, Jose Guillen, Preston Wilson and Cristian Guzman, the last of which scored a pair of runs. Even Loaiza chipped in with an RBI single.
Pitching on three days' rest because of a rainout in Philadelphia last Tuesday, Loaiza came through with just his second win in his last seven starts. He mastered the Mets through four, allowing just one hit, then gave up a three-run homer to pinch hitter Mike Jacobs, in his first major league at-bat, in the fifth.
But Loaiza hung in until the seventh, when he was lifted with one out, and the Nationals' bullpen took it from there. Left-hander Joey Eischen got the key out in that inning, striking out Cliff Floyd on three pitches with the bases loaded.
"I'm just glad I won that battle," Eischen said.
Which is just about what the Nationals accomplished Sunday, and on this trek. Now, they head home. "I don't remember the last time we were there," Church said.
That was Aug. 7. They have 25 more games at RFK, more home games than anyone else in the wild-card race.
"It's a good time to make a move," Robinson said, "and really put something together."