- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 10, 2005

PHOENIX — They had no bullpen, everyone still feeling the effects of Sunday’s 13-inning game in San Francisco. By the seventh inning, they had neither of their starting middle infielders. Their ace pitcher, as good as he is, was running on fumes until the moment he departed.

By now, though, it should come as no surprise that the Washington Nationals somehow found a way to win this ballgame despite the multitude of hurdles standing in their way.

The Nationals’ latest work of magic — a 4-3 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks last night — fell right in line with the rest of their four other West Coast wins from the last week. They found themselves in a tough spot, fought through it and won yet again.

Give credit this time to first baseman Nick Johnson, who went 3-for-4 and drove in two of the game’s biggest runs on a sixth-inning homer and an eighth-inning double. Give credit to Livan Hernandez, who battled through seven gutsy innings to help save Washington’s beat-up bullpen. And give credit to Carlos Baerga, the pinch-hitting specialist who was called into duty at second base after shortstop Cristian Guzman went down with a hamstring strain.

Baerga proved to be the Nationals’ biggest savior. He entered in the seventh to play second base for the first time this season, with Jamey Carroll (already filling in for Jose Vidro at second) forced to move to shortstop following Guzman’s injury. Guzman, the latest in a seemingly never-ending line of Washington players to get hurt in the last week, is now listed as day-to-day.

Hardly fleet-footed in the field, Baerga nevertheless made the play of the game, diving to his left to knock down Royce Clayton’s bases-loaded liner in the seventh and keep the game tied 3-3.

A few minutes later, Johnson roped a double to deep left-center, scoring Carroll from second to give the Nationals a 4-3 lead and give Hernandez his 100th win.

Hernandez (5-2) won his fourth straight start, tossing shutout ball for six innings before finally wilting in the seventh. Chad Tracy, who homered off Hernandez on Opening Night at RFK Stadium last month, got to him again, lifting a two-run shot to right to trim the Nationals’ lead to 3-2.

Washington’s exhausted bullpen sprang into action, but manager Frank Robinson had no intention of taking the ball out of his ace’s hands, even when he put the next two Diamondbacks hitters on.

Shawn Green made Hernandez pay, driving in the tying run with a sacrifice fly. Despite a trip to the mound (and Hernandez’s 116 pitch count at the time), Robinson still stuck with his ace, instructing him to intentionally walk Jose Cruz Jr. to load the bases.

Clayton nearly made that decision look bad, crushing Hernandez’s 123rd pitch of the night toward the right side of the infield. But Baerga, playing his first inning of the season at second base, managed to extend his stocky frame just far enough to knock the ball down, retrieve it and throw Clayton out by a step.

Hector Carrasco got out of a two-on, one-out jam in the eighth, and Chad Cordero pitched the ninth to earn his seventh save and send the Bank One Ballpark crowd of 19,440 home disappointed — at least until they got word of the Phoenix Suns’ commanding lead over the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA playoff game taking place next door to the BOB.

Tracy’s homer off Hernandez wasn’t the only similarity to the RFK opener, which the Nationals won 5-3. Just as they did that night, Washington came up with some big hits against Arizona pitching to help Hernandez. Brad Wilkerson drove home Brian Schneider with a double off the right-field wall in the third to make it 1-0, then gave way to two of Washington’s hottest hitters to pad the lead in the sixth.

Johnson was first to strike, belting a 2-2 pitch from Brandon Webb (4-1) over the right-field fence faster than Green could snap his head around to watch. That made Johnson 14 for his last 33 (.424) with 11 RBI over that span.

The only Nationals player swinging a hotter bat these days than Johnson is left fielder Ryan Church, who continued his torrid streak by homering off Webb two batters later. That was Church’s third hit of the night and left the rookie a cool 11-for-17 on this road trip — a .647 average.

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