- The Washington Times - Monday, April 17, 2006

MIAMI — Nothing Ryan Church had done before the sixth inning of yesterday’s game at Dolphin Stadium suggested he was on the verge of doing something special.

Since he was recalled Friday from Class AAA New Orleans, the Washington Nationals’ second-year outfielder was 0-for-7 at the plate. He had struck out four times, often looking lost in doing so.

“I’d get in that box, there’s a million things going on in my head,” he said.

So Church decided to simplify things: Forget about the awful spring that cost him the starting center field job. Forget the .130 average he had opened the season with at New Orleans. And forget the pressure he was starting to feel playing for a club that has gotten off to an awful start itself.

Amazing what a clear mind can do.

And amazing what a couple of clutch home runs can do for himself and the team.

Church found that out yesterday, clubbing a pair of two-run homers to spark the Nationals to a dramatic 7-5 victory over the Marlins. His first, an opposite-field shot in the sixth, tied the game 3-3 and set the stage for a wild finish. His second, a traditional poke to right field with two outs in the ninth, gave Washington the lead for good and made Church the most-popular player in the visiting clubhouse.

“My confidence is at an all-time high,” he said as he took a swig from the premium bottle of beer teammate Jose Vidro asked him to fetch. (“One for me, one for you,” Vidro told Church before toasting his success.)

Church’s flair for the dramatic gave the Nationals (4-9) their first two-game winning streak and first series victory of the season. But this almost turned into another defeat.

Despite rallying to take a 4-3 lead on Vidro’s eighth-inning sacrifice fly, Washington set-up man Gary Majewski gave it all back to the Marlins during a rough bottom half of the inning. Summoned from the bullpen with one out and no one on, Majewski immediately walked Chris Aguila.

“That was my first mistake,” Majewski (1-0) said.

His second was a bad pitch to Miguel Olivo, the Florida catcher, who tagged it to deep left-center for an RBI double that tied the game 4-4. A few minutes later, pinch-hitter Wes Helms gave the Marlins the lead with a sinking liner that fell in front of Church, then skipped past the right fielder. Olivo came all the way around to score, and Helms wound up at third with a crushing triple.

Suddenly, the Nationals were staring at the wrong end of a 5-4 deficit on the scoreboard and the likelihood of their fourth straight losing series to open the season.

“This one could have gotten away from us,” manager Frank Robinson said. “But we hung in there.”

That they did. Alfonso Soriano led off the ninth against Marlins closer Matt Herges (0-1) with a broken-bat double down the left field line. He took third on Marlon Anderson’s sacrifice bunt, bringing up No. 3 hitter Nick Johnson with a chance to tie the game.

Johnson, though, smoked a grounder right to drawn-in shortstop Hanley Ramirez, the ideal outcome from the Marlins’ perspective. Until Ramirez botched the play. He looked Soriano back to third, double-pumped and threw way wide of first base, a costly error that allowed Soriano to score the tying run and Johnson to advance to second.

Washington nearly blew the opportunity again, though, when Johnson was gunned down trying to take third on a wild pitch. That left it all up to Church, with two outs and the only runner now on second.

He responded with the kind of clutch hit so absent from the Nationals’ first 12 games of the year. Turning on a 2-2 curveball from Herges, Church sent the ball several rows into the right field bleachers, giving his team the lead once again.

“The other night he made me look stupid with the same exact pitch, that curveball,” Church said. “That’s what I figured he was going to come with again in that count. And he did, and I hit it with enough of the bat to get it over the fence.”

Chad Cordero retired the side in the ninth to earn his second save in as many nights and put the final touch on a wild game before 10,296, who witnessed the temperature start rising in the seventh inning. Not on the thermostat, but on the field.

Carlos Martinez was pitching in relief for Florida, and when he struck out Anderson with one out and no one on, the rookie right-hander made a demonstrative gesture on the mound. Anderson immediately took offense and pointed his bat toward Martinez in anger.

Olivo put his arms around Anderson, and that prompted both benches and bullpens to empty. No punches were thrown and no one was ejected, but the day’s tension level had risen considerably.

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