Nationals 6, Phillies 1
The summer flows by, its little landmarks tied to picnics, parties and, now, baseball. On Memorial Day, Washington Nationals Manager Frank Robinson emerged from his dugout and argued with members of the umpiring crew, who then changed a home run from Atlanta's Brian Jordan into a foul ball. The Nationals beat the Braves by one run, on their way toward settling into first place.
On the Fourth of July came a loss to the New York Mets, the beginning of a precipitous fall. On that day, the Nationals led the National League East by 41/2 games. A month later, they trailed by 41/2.
So we arrive today at Labor Day, near summer's end. And behold the Nationals, a full season's strife apparent on their worn faces and in their tattered psyches, still standing, still in the running for the postseason. Yesterday's 6-1 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies made that scenario -- so unlikely in spring training, so unlikely even last week -- a reality. With a week to go on a homestand that everyone involved acknowledges could determine their fate and establish their character -- one way or the other -- they are just two games behind in the race for the National League's wild-card playoff berth.
They have, at times, fought with each other. They have, at times, bristled under their manager. They have, at times, looked inept offensively. But while many Americans flip burgers and run through sprinklers one last time this afternoon, the Nationals will face the Florida Marlins at RFK Stadium in yet another very meaningful game.
"When you have success, everything looks good," said Robinson, aware of his club's fragile state. "And when you don't, nothing looks good. But I really liked the approach and the attitude the last couple days, the spirit of the ballclub."
Nothing buoys the spirit like the kind of performance turned in by right-hander Esteban Loaiza, who gutted out eight innings when the team needed just that. He allowed one run, gave up four hits, matched a career high with 11 strikeouts and threw a season-high 128 pitches -- all on three days' rest. He so mastered the Philadelphia hitters that in the bottom of the sixth, with the Nationals up 3-0, the bases loaded and two outs, Robinson sent Loaiza up to hit for himself despite a bevy of potential pinch hitters, an unorthodox move.
Loaiza, standing in the on-deck circle, was surprised to be there.
"I see nobody warming up, and I said, 'I guess I just got to bear down right now,' " he said later. "I'm a veteran, and I know what I'm capable of doing."
Loaiza's spirits, in turn, were buoyed by one swing in the second inning, a three-run homer from catcher Brian Schneider, one on which Schneider maturely noted that Phillies rookie Gavin Floyd couldn't locate his curveball, so he came to the plate seeking a fastball.
"There's no reason to look for a pitch if a guy's not going to throw it for strikes," Schneider said. "And Gavin, he wasn't throwing it for a strike early on, so you try to eliminate that pitch."
The first pitch, predictably, was a fastball, and Schneider turned on it, sending it into the right field bullpen for that 3-0 lead. Even in good times, that is a relative explosion for the Nationals, who couldn't put anything else together against Floyd. When Loaiza struck out in the sixth, he had to continue to hope he could stave off a dangerous Phillies lineup.
Things got easier, though, in the seventh, when the Nationals put two runners on, and center fielder Preston Wilson faced right-hander Pedro Liriano, appearing in just his fourth game this season. Less than 17 hours earlier, Wilson provided the hit that again staved off devastation for the Nationals, a game-winning single in the bottom of the 12th to beat the Phillies, 5-4. And here, he provided the insurance, jumping on a 1-2 fastball and driving it where few hitters have gone at RFK this season, into the upper deck, to Section 447.
"We need somebody to get hot," Robinson said of Wilson, who went 3 for 4 and now has 30 RBI in his 46 games since a July 13 trade brought him here from Colorado.
"I think I'm more comfortable," Wilson said.
And that, over the remainder of the homestand, will be something to watch, for there is perhaps no more important aspect of this team than its comfort level around each other. Last week, when the team returned home from a series in Atlanta, Robinson eliminated pre- and postgame music in the clubhouse, a move designed to return the focus to baseball, but one that rankled some veterans.
"I've never had rules like this," veteran Carlos Baerga said. "But we're players. We have to follow the rules."
After Wilson's home run, Brad Wilkerson scored first, and he waited for Jose Guillen. The two have been at the center of a clubhouse that has, at times, seemed divided. But at the close of Saturday's dramatic win, they embraced, and when scoring in front of Wilson's homer, they exchanged hearty high-fives.
"Everything's fine," Guillen said.
Whatever their mental state, the standings don't lie. They are in the race. And with the last of summer's milestone dates about to pass, they have four games with Florida to remain there.
"This team, it's a different team," Wilkerson said. "And the nucleus of this club that's been here for the last couple years, we have a lot of fight in us, and we're not going to give up. . . .
"I'm very happy right now to see this team bouncing back and seeing what we can do. We got these seven games here that are very important, and if we come out and play good baseball, I'll put our chances up against anybody."