- The Washington Times - Monday, May 30, 2005

ST. LOUIS — Inside a lifeless Washington Nationals clubhouse Saturday night, players wasted no time in eating, showering, dressing and getting back to their hotel.

Except for Brad Wilkerson. The Nationals’ leadoff man, stuck in the same hitting funk that has plagued the rest of the team for more than a week, went straight to one of the two traveling video machines and popped in a tape. The subject: Chris Carpenter, the following day’s opposing pitcher.

“I felt like maybe with a day game today, I might be a little rushed trying to get ready,” Wilkerson said. “I wanted to take a look at him, and I had some time last night, so I did. That way, I could sleep on it and come out here fresh today.”

Fresh? Wilkerson looked like he had been reborn yesterday afternoon. He pounded Carpenter all over Busch Stadium, tying a franchise record with three straight doubles — the last of them the defining hit in the Nationals’ 3-2 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals.

“I’m just glad I hit the ball hard three times,” said Wilkerson, who had been fighting an injured right forearm and a 5-for-25 slump that epitomized Washington’s overall struggles during a gruesome, nine-game road trip.

Amazing what one cathartic win can do for a reeling ballclub. Yes, the Nationals are heading home having gone 2-7 in Toronto, Cincinnati and St. Louis. But they’re going home in good spirits after winning a game they simply had to win yesterday, one that improved their record to 25-25 and left them only 3 games behind in the National League East.

“That’s what we needed,” manager Frank Robinson said. “It was a real shot in the arm for this ballclub to win this game.”

Washington avoided a second consecutive road sweep thanks to a gutsy pitching performance from Livan Hernandez (who earned his seventh straight win) and some timely hitting.

Wilkerson provided the timeliest hit of them all, a two-run double in the fifth that tied the game at 2-2. But he wasn’t alone.

Marlon Byrd jump-started things with a single up the middle to start the fifth. Brian Schneider then executed a hit-and-run to perfection, sending a grounder through the hole vacated by shortstop David Eckstein for a single of his own that would have advanced Byrd to third base if he hadn’t stumbled coming around second.

In the Nationals dugout, Robinson suffered from momentary panic.

“Oh no, here we go again,” he thought as he watched Byrd’s feet go out from under him.

Any other day during this trip and Robinson’s worst fears might have been realized. Not on this day. Even though the Nationals’ next two batters were retired, Wilkerson responded by lacing a two-run double into the left-field corner on an 0-2 pitch from Carpenter (7-3).

“I just told myself, ‘Get a ball in the strike zone and make a good swing,’” said Wilkerson, who after studying Carpenter on Saturday night reminded himself how much the right-hander relies on his breaking ball. “I was just really relaxed and didn’t panic being down 0-2.”

Having finally gotten the big hit that had escaped them for more than a week, the Nationals suddenly felt like anything was possible. So it was that Jamey Carroll came to the plate following Wilkerson and promptly drove in the game-winning run with a single.

“[Wilkerson’s hit] gave us a boost of confidence, sure,” said Carroll, who snapped a 3-for-29 slump with his single. “It was a big hit for me.”

Not just for Carroll but for the entire club, which now had a 3-2 lead to work with. Hernandez, victimized for two early runs, including one on Jim Edmonds’ third home run in as many days, pitched out of a bases-loaded jam in the fifth, getting Mark Grudzielanek to ground into a force out. He then retired the side in the sixth and seventh, truly earning his fifth win of the month.

“A real, real, real gutsy performance,” Robinson said. “One ‘gutsy’ wouldn’t describe it. He didn’t have his good control, but he hung tough. He kept searching and improvising until he got in a good groove.”

Robinson, though, still needed six more outs from his bullpen, and though left-hander C.J. Nitkowski opened the eighth by surrendering a single to Edmonds, Gary Majewski came on and got Reggie Sanders to pop out and Grudzielanek to ground into a 4-6-3 double play.

Majewski, who began the season in the minors, now has a 1.25 ERA in 18 appearances, most of them in crucial situations.

“I’m not going to say I’m getting used to it, but Frank has a lot of confidence in me,” he said. “I’m prepared now. I’m mentally ready if he calls on me.”

Chad Cordero, who hadn’t been used in a save situation since May19, retired the side on seven pitches in the ninth, earning his 11th save and sending the Nationals back to RFK Stadium for the start of a 13-game homestand.

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