Nationals 3, Braves 2
-- At a time when they should have, by their own admission, long ago been dismissed as a playoff contender, the Washington Nationals delayed the downgrade at least another day. And at a time when playoff contenders are merely tweaking their rosters for the season's final month, they took their most expensive offseason acquisition, shortstop Cristian Guzman, and essentially benched him.
Such was the landmark nature of Tuesday at Turner Field, where the Nationals made a trade with the San Francisco Giants for infielder Deivi Cruz, then went out and beat the Atlanta Braves, 3-2, in front of 20,001 who had gathered to watch their Braves take another step toward yet another division title.
How much was working against the Nationals, not only over the last month, but in this game specifically? Their ace starter, John Patterson, came up with his shortest outing of the year, 22/3 innings, before he left with stomach cramps. The Braves had swept the Nationals in three games here late last month, sending Washington out of first place in the National League East. And the Nationals seemed to be flailing, with General Manager Jim Bowden talking about the need for changes, for a "spark," and calling on Cruz -- a .269 career hitter -- to provide it.
But when the night ended, they had 61/3 scoreless innings from a beleaguered bullpen, including Jason Bergmann's first major league win and Chad Cordero's 42nd save. They had Jose Guillen's 24th homer. They had what, for the last six weeks, has been as rare in Washington as a dodo bird -- a two-out, run-scoring hit, this a single from center fielder Preston Wilson, breaking a tie in the fifth inning, scoring what held up as the game-winning run.
So, improbably, the Nationals will rise Wednesday -- facing a monumental doubleheader against the Braves -- to find themselves just 11/2 games back of the Philadelphia Phillies and the Florida Marlins, who are now tied atop the National League wild-card standings. So even as this team has looked done for more than a month, the Nationals could use the doubleheader against the Braves, in which Livan Hernandez and Esteban Loaiza will pitch for Washington, to springboard back into, of all things, the wild-card lead.
"I said the other day, 'They're going to let us hang around here and win this thing,' " Manager Frank Robinson said. "They're giving us a chance. There's no reason why we should be where we are in the wild card if other teams were playing anywhere decent.
"But you know the old saying: Don't let a guy hang around. If you got a chance to knock him out, knock him out. They've had a chance to knock us out the entire second half of the season, and they haven't done that yet. So maybe we'll bounce back off the ropes and get up off the canvas and win this thing."
If they do, Cruz might be a significant part of it. In exchange for the veteran of nine major league seasons, the Nationals parted with Class A right-hander Ben Cox. Robinson said after the game that Cruz was not coming as a spare part.
"He'll come in here and he'll start to play as soon as he gets here," he said.
That means that Guzman, signed to a four-year, $16.8 million deal in the offseason, will sit. Cruz has a reputation for swinging at bad pitches and drawing very few walks, precisely Guzman's problems. But while Guzman entered Tuesday's game hitting a horrific .196 with an on-base percentage of .238 -- 43 points lower than the next-worst offensive player in baseball, Pittsburgh's Jack Wilson -- Cruz's average in 81 games for the Giants was .268, his on-base percentage .301.
The thinking, Bowden said, is to give Robinson, who is managing a team that has scored the fewest runs in baseball, more offensive options. Cruz could also play second base, where Jose Vidro is battling two bad quadriceps muscles.
"Guzzy's hitting under .200 with September [arriving] on Thursday," Bowden said. "Vidro's playing on sore quads and is going to have to play hurt the rest of the year. We're not scoring any runs. . . .
"We need some choices. I need to give Frank some choices. Between trading for him and our call-ups on Thursday, he's going to have some choices, and he's going to have some fresh legs and bodies that may spark the guys they have now, or maybe he gets in and sparks the team that way."
Cruz is due to be at Turner Field at least in time for the second game of Wednesday's doubleheader, but the changes won't end with his arrival. Major league rosters can expand from 25 to 40 on Thursday, the first day of September, and Bowden said the Nationals may add as many as 10 players, an unusually high number.
Teams typically add five or six players for a postseason run. But Bowden believes the Nationals' offense is so limited, he must add whatever he can find. Therefore, not only will top prospect Ryan Zimmerman join the club on Thursday, but AAA outfielders Kenny Kelly, Tyrell Godwin and Brandon Watson -- all fleet-footed -- should arrive as well. So should infielder Rick Short, who flirted with hitting .400 for AAA New Orleans.
"Cruz and Zimmerman are going to give [Robinson] alternatives," Bowden said. "And that may be to start. It may be to back up. It may be to double-switch. But in a game where we're not scoring, he's going to have a lot of different ammunition he hasn't had all year."
Cox was 4-4 with a 3.00 ERA in 42 appearances, all in relief, for Class A Savannah. Nationals scouts don't project him to be a major leaguer. Cruz, a free agent at the end of this season, has a base salary of $800,000. He will cost the Nationals about $136,000 for the rest of the year.
Somehow, they didn't need anyone else Tuesday night. Patterson, a stalwart at a time when the Nationals have few, couldn't get out of the third. He felt sick early in the day, he said, but thought he could overcome it. But after he allowed two runs in the third, he couldn't.
"I've never felt that way my entire career," he said. "It was just a lot of pain."
Bergmann took over, and got the final out of the third. Hector Carrasco relieved him, and got a key out in the fifth. Gary Majewski took over for Carrasco, and recorded the final out of the eighth. And Cordero walked his normal tightrope in the ninth, allowing a two-out walk to Adam LaRoche before striking out Jeff Francoeur to end it.
So they are here, another day closer to September, another day still in the race.
"I don't know how come we're still right there with the season that we're having," Guillen said. "I think we should be in last place. That's what I think. We have to say thank you to our bullpen."