- The Washington Times - Monday, June 6, 2005

The day began with a closed-door meeting, one player getting fined and another wondering whether he will be suspended for bumping into an umpire.

It ended with yet another inspiring victory by the Washington Nationals, further proof of the resilience this club continues to show each time it faces even the hint of adversity. By the time their 6-3 thriller over the Florida Marlins at RFK Stadium was complete yesterday, the only thing that mattered to this team was its standing in the National League East: all alone at the top.

Yes, for the first time since 1933, a major league ballclub from Washington is in first place this deep into the season. The ‘33 Senators, of course, went on to win the last of their three American League pennants. The 2005 Nationals? It’s still way too early to start talking about them in the same context.

But make no mistake: With each passing day and each passing victory, the Nationals are turning disbelievers into believers and making the impossible seem possible.

Not just because they’re winning games, though they have taken six of seven against the Marlins and Atlanta Braves over the last week. No, it’s the way they’re winning games: coming from behind, shaking off pregame distractions, rallying to beat the best the NL East has to offer.

It’s gotten to the point where manager Frank Robinson and his players no longer are surprised by their almost-daily heroics. They have come to expect it.

“I’m in the clubhouse with these guys,” Robinson said. “The way they conduct themselves, the way they talk, the way they deal with tough losses and the way they carry themselves the next day, it gives you a feeling about this ballclub that good things are going to happen, to them and for them.”

Both are happening right now. The Nationals are helping their own cause, sweeping the Marlins after taking three of four from the Braves. They’re also getting help from elsewhere, most notably Pittsburgh, where the Pirates just won five of seven against the Marlins and Braves, bringing those two division front-runners back to the pack.

The end result? Washington wakes up this morning and finds itself atop the NL East at 31-26, the perfect jump-start to a day off before the Oakland Athletics come to town tomorrow.

“This team is so exciting,” said Carlos Baerga, one of the key figures in yesterday’s comeback win. “The last two weeks, we’ve played St. Louis, the Braves, the Marlins, and we’ve shown everybody what kind of team we have. We never get down.”

If ever the Nationals had legitimate reason to get down, yesterday was the time. Though they were coming off back-to-back wins over Florida, they also were dealing with controversies involving outfielder Marlon Byrd, who, accidentally or not, ran into umpire Joe Brinkman on Saturday night; and pitcher Tomo Ohka, who was fined by the club for disrespecting Robinson upon being taken out of Saturday’s game in the fourth inning.

Washington also held a closed-door meeting before yesterday’s game, the subject of which had nothing to do with Byrd or Ohka but rather the sloppy, unprofessional play that had begun to surface in recent days.

“It was a good meeting,” Baerga said. “There were things that we needed to discuss.”

With all that behind them, the Nationals took the field to a roar from the RFK crowd of 40,995 and went about their daily business. Which is to say, they struggled to score runs for six innings, then flipped on the switch in the seventh and rallied from behind again.

When they came to bat in the seventh, the Nationals trailed 2-0. Despite a solid showing from starter John Patterson (six innings, one run), they could do nothing with Florida right-hander A.J. Burnett.

Then it began. Ryan Church drew a one-out walk. Brian Schneider singled. Tony Blanco, given a rare start because of injuries to both Brad Wilkerson and Jose Guillen, hit a high chopper over third base to score Church with Washington’s first run of the day.

Then, a surprise. Out of the dugout came Guillen, who wasn’t supposed to play after getting hit on his right hand the night before but convinced Robinson he could come off the bench if needed. The Nationals’ emotional leader drilled a single to right off reliever Jim Mecir, loading the bases and keeping the rally alive.

“I looked at his hand today, and I said he can’t play,” Robinson said. “But he said, ‘I’ll be available if you need me.’ He’s done that all year, and I sure respect him for that.”

Baerga then tied the game the hard way, taking a fastball off his left knee to score pinch-runner Ohka — yes, Ohka — from third. Byrd then lofted a fly ball to left field deep enough to score Blanco and give Washington a 3-2 lead.

It didn’t hold up for long — the Marlins rallied to tie the game in the eighth on Lenny Harris’ record 200th career pinch-hit — but the Nationals were far from done.

They put two men on in the eighth to bring Church to the plate. The rookie outfielder, getting a rare at-bat against a left-hander, took a strike from Matt Perisho, then crushed an 0-1 fastball over the right-field fence.

As Church trotted around the bases, his three-run homer having just given the Nationals the lead for good, the rest of the bench spilled out of the dugout, soaking in the thunderous ovation from the large crowd.

“Maybe it’s our comfort zone,” Church said of Washington’s 21st come-from-behind victory this year. “We know going late into the game, we can come back. We’ve been there. We’ve done that. We just have confidence.”

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