Nationals 8, Braves 6
Those conversations you had at the water cooler, the ones with your friends at lunch, the ones in which the topic is the Washington Nationals and the nice little season they had, and isn't it too bad that it's over? Turns out the Nationals occasionally have such talks, as well. So it was last night, when Jose Guillen, the right fielder who seemingly was without a significant hit in the second half of the season, turned to veteran reserve Carlos Baerga.
"If we don't win this game," Guillen said, "we're done."
Which, it seemed, was an accurate statement. But if we have learned something about the Nationals, about baseball in its first summer back here since 1971, it might be to delay those conversations until the season is officially over. They entered last night trailing in the National League's wild-card race by four games. They ended the top of the fifth inning down to the Atlanta Braves by four runs. They entered the bottom of the eighth still trailing by two.
And they won.
"We still believe," third baseman Vinny Castilla said.
For one more time, it seemed like it. Brad Wilkerson hit a two-run double to tie the game in the eighth, and Guillen followed with a two-run double of his own, the outburst that brought about an emotional 8-6 victory and sent an announced crowd of 36,295 spilling from the stands at RFK Stadium, murmuring about how, just when their team had stumbled out of things, they yanked themselves back in.
"The way things are going, you've got to be amazed that we came back the way we came back," Manager Frank Robinson said. "And against a team like that, they usually don't give it back once they get it."
So instead of becoming even more of an afterthought in the race, they put themselves in position to play this afternoon, on national television, with 15-game winner Livan Hernandez on the mound, to pull even closer. They now trail the Houston Astros by three games, and the clubhouse was abuzz again as a three-game losing streak ended in a fashion that felt very much like the hot, sweltering days of June, when these kinds of wins were nightly events. A big hit from Wilkerson, another from Guillen, a save from Chad Cordero -- his 44th of the season, setting a new franchise record. It was, at one point, a foolproof formula.
"Like old times," Robinson said.
If only it were that easy. There were disturbing signs here, too, most notably the performance of starter Esteban Loaiza, the man who, given the frayed state of the Nationals bullpen, needed to come up with a stellar outing. He didn't, allowing a pair of runs in the first inning, then four in the fifth, including Andruw Jones's 46th homer of the year, a three-run shot that made it 6-2.
"It doesn't really surprise you anymore," Atlanta starter Horacio Ramirez said. "He's the man right now."
Conversely, it has been a long time since Guillen has been the man, a fact from which he does not run. "That's the truth," he said afterward.
But it took some doing to get it to that point. Washington managed a run in the fifth, but left the bases loaded. Castilla hit his 11th home run, a towering solo shot into Section 444 in left field, in the seventh to make it 6-4.
Yet it has seemed, since the all-star break, this club couldn't come all the way back and finish these things off. Something was always missing, a key hit or one more scoreless inning from the bullpen. This one, though, was different.
"It felt," Cordero said, "exactly like the first half."
Never more than in that eighth inning. Atlanta reliever Kyle Davies opened the frame by walking pinch hitter Ryan Church and shortstop Cristian Guzman. Lefty John Foster replaced Davies, and Jamey Carroll laid down a nice bunt, moving the runners into scoring position.
Here came Wilkerson, so infrequently in such a spot. He had failed to come through in a similar instance a night earlier in a loss to Florida. But when Foster fell behind 1-0, Wilkerson looked for the slider.
"He left it up in the zone," Wilkerson said, "and I hit it hard."
It landed in deep right field, and tied the game at 6. When Baerga drew a walk as a pinch hitter, the Braves -- who were without injured reliever Chris Reitsma -- sent in Dan Kolb, who has failed in this situation against the Nationals before.
Kolb, though, had to face Guillen, who simply hasn't been a run producer in the second half of the season. Still, his reputation is as the most dangerous hitter in Washington's lineup.
"That was the one guy we didn't want to pitch to," Atlanta Manager Bobby Cox said.
But they did, and Guillen beat them. He sent the game-winning double to right, the opposite way, the 1,000th hit of his career, and he acknowledged the accomplishment by donating the ball and bat from the play to the Nationals Foundation, so they could auction them off.
When he slid into second base, however, the ensuing fist pump, the uppercut he threw to the sky, was all about the team, the victory. Guillen's teammates pointed to him from the top step of the dugout, and he pointed back.
The joyous days of June? Or the sad days of September? For a moment last night, it was hard to tell. This team has been embattled, embittered, upset and uninspired. Still, they rise for one more morning, and they're in it.
"It may not look like it on the field," Robinson said. "But I'm with these guys in the clubhouse. They haven't quit. That's the one thing they haven't done."