- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 8, 2005

SAN FRANCISCO — When it was over, when this improbable victory over a supposedly superior opponent was in the books and you had a chance to sit back and ponder the meaning of it all, it was hard not to come to the following conclusion:

The Washington Nationals are for real.

Yes, it’s still only the second week of May. And, yes, this team has a long way to go, with 132 games left and a banged-up roster that seems to get more banged up by the day.

But you don’t do what the Nationals did to the San Francisco Giants yesterday unless you’re either (a) incredibly talented, (b) incredibly lucky or (c) destined for greatness.

Whatever the case, Washington is experiencing something magical right now, and yesterday’s 11-8 victory before a stunned crowd of 40,220 at SBC Park was definitive proof — despite manager Frank Robinson’s best efforts to keep the rest of the baseball world from noticing it.

“Let us continue to fly under the radar,” Robinson said. “Let the people continue to feel sorry for us. I mean, look at us: We’re a bunch of misfits, troublemakers, we come from all over. We just go out and do the best we can, and sometimes they may throw us a crumb and we win a ballgame.”

The Nationals (17-13) have won a few ballgames in inspiring fashion already this season but nothing previously compared to this.

They beat up on San Francisco’s Jason Schmidt, one of the National League’s elite starting pitchers. They twice came from behind, scoring seven runs in the fourth inning and four runs in the deciding ninth inning to win. They fielded a starting lineup without their regular No.3 and No.4 hitters, then watched as cleanup man Jose Guillen pulled a Kirk Gibson and nearly won the game single-handedly off the bench despite a balky left arm.

And they squeezed every last ounce out of their depleted bullpen, so much so that had the game gone another inning Robinson would have been forced to pitch Tomo Ohka — the previous night’s starter.

And by day’s end, they returned to their downtown San Francisco hotel riding the wave of a three-game winning streak, owners of a 4-1 record on this daunting West Coast trip and sitting four games over .500 for the first time since April17.

“It’s just a huge win,” said outfielder Brad Wilkerson, whose ninth-inning sacrifice fly tied the game 8-8 and set the stage for heroics to come. “To give up a grand slam [to Giants outfielder Moises Alou in the third inning] and then to come right back and score seven runs. Then they come back, and we’re feeling down in the dugout, couldn’t get anything going. … It was just a great all-around day.”

There was no shortage of credit worth passing around, from Robinson’s gutsy decision to pull struggling starter John Patterson after just three innings, to rookie Ryan Church’s career-best four-hit, four-RBI day (including the game-winning, three-run double in the ninth) to the 42/3 scoreless innings provided by relievers Hector Carrasco, Gary Majewski, Luis Ayala and Chad Cordero.

But none of it would have been possible without Guillen.

The dynamic right fielder spent all morning, and even the first part of the game, curled up in a ball on a clubhouse sofa, drowsy from the medication he had taken to reduce the swelling on his bruised left arm. He took a few swings in the batting tunnel before the game and told bench coach Eddie Rodriguez he might be well enough to pinch-hit, still never actually expecting to play.

Yet who should emerge from the dugout to bat for Patterson in the fourth with the bases loaded and his club trailing 4-0 but the supposed “problem child” who has taken over leadership of these Nationals? And who should come through with a two-run single to right off Schmidt, jump-starting Washington on its way to a seven-run inning?

“I mean, how does that not fire you up?” said second baseman Jamey Carroll.

Said Guillen: “They told me, ‘Come here, you’re pinch-hitting.’ I had to get my belt, my batting gloves, everything. I was not really expecting to play at all today. He just put me in there. It was surprising. They just told me, ‘You’re in the game.’”

Guillen, who called this “one of the weirdest games” he’s ever played, was only getting started. He wound up staying in to play right field, made a fabulous running catch, doubled in the fifth and gave himself up in the ninth inning to move a runner up.

“There’s not too many hitters around who would have done that,” Robinson said of Guillen’s grounder to second off rookie Giants reliever Jeremy Accardo (0-1) that moved Jeffrey Hammonds from second to third. “He is slowly becoming the leader of this ballclub. This ballclub has taken on his attitude.”

Guillen’s willingness to make an out was rewarded when Hammonds came in to score the tying run on Wilkerson’s sacrifice fly to left. A few minutes later, Church cleared the bases with a double just inside the third-base line, giving the Nationals the lead for good. Cordero (sixth save) pitched a perfect bottom of the ninth, preserving the win for Ayala (2-1).

“We know we’re not out until the last, final out,” Church said. “I think everybody realizes that. It’s a message to the rest of the league: We’re going to come out here and play every day, the whole nine.”

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