The Washington Nationals searched all night for a clutch hit, something that would spark a rally and produce an offensive outburst.
Maybe they should have asked the Atlanta Braves how it's done. The visitors came through twice last night, getting towering home runs from both Andruw Jones and ex-National Daryle Ward in a 6-1 victory at RFK Stadium.
Those two shots gave an otherwise blase game -- a makeup from an April 22 rainout -- some sizzle, just not enough to satisfy the announced crowd of 25,211, the majority of which decided not to use their rain checks.
Those who did turn out weren't treated to many fireworks from the home team. Washington managed just one run (on a second-inning sacrifice fly), twice left the bases loaded, went 0-for-4 with runners in scoring position and generally looked lifeless in front of the sparse crowd.
"You're not going to score a lot of runs every night," manager Frank Robinson said. "We just didn't get anything going. We had one chance, and you've got to have more than one chance to win a ballgame. ... We just couldn't get the next hit."
The Braves, on the other hand, did what they needed to pull this one out. They put men on base and then watched as Jones and Ward brought everyone home with titanic homers.
Jones' sixth-inning shot came off Tony Armas, the one big mistake the Washington starter made all night.
The inning began with a single to center by Adam LaRoche, bringing Jones to the plate. The Braves slugger has seen his production slip a tad from last season, when he was an MVP candidate, but he's still a fearsome presence with the bat.
So when catcher Robert Fick signaled for a 2-2 inside fastball, Armas shook him off, wanting instead to throw an outside slider. Just one problem: Armas hung the pitch over the heart of the plate, and Jones made him pay for it, launching a two-run homer into the left-field mezzanine to give his team a 3-1 lead.
"I thought he was going to look inside," the right-hander said. "That's why I went out there. I just hung it."
Armas (8-12) departed in the seventh, having recorded only his second quality start in his last seven outings, and turned things over to a Washington bullpen that had pitched quite effectively for the last week.
Not last night. Rookie Brett Campbell entered in the eighth, immediately walked Jones on four pitches, gave up a single to Brian McCann and watched as Ward tagged an 0-2 slider over the right-field fence for a three-run blast that served as the evening's final blow.
It was Ward's fourth pinch-hit homer of the season, the first three of which came with the Nationals. The burly first baseman/outfielder enjoyed a productive season off the bench in Washington, but there weren't many opportunities to get regular at-bats, so he was dealt to Atlanta on Aug. 31 for a pitching prospect.
"You saw it. Where's he going to play, right field? Is he going to play first base? Is he going to play left field? Third base? No," Robinson said. "There just wasn't a spot."
Said Ward: "It's a whole different situation for me here. I have a lot more opportunities than I would over there on a team that's trying to rebuild. To get a chance to come over here and play has been great."
Ward said he departed town on amicable terms with the Nationals, and several ex-teammates spoke highly of him last night. But he wasn't ashamed to take some satisfaction out of striking back against them and helping his new team win.
"Yeah, there's always going to be some sense of revenge," Ward said. "You can't lie about that or hold it back. You do want to put it to them. To get a hit like that is a point on my side."
The Nationals could have used Ward's bat last night. With regulars Ryan Zimmerman and Brian Schneider on the bench, Robinson's lineup was lacking some punch, and it showed. Aside from Nook Logan's second-inning sacrifice fly, Washington was rendered helpless by Braves starter Kyle Davies (3-5) and three relievers.
The Nationals' only real shot against Davies came in the fourth, when two walks and a single loaded the bases with two outs. But rookie Melvin Dorta, starting at third base in place of Zimmerman, popped out to second to kill that potential rally and leave the Nationals scrambling to try to put something together.
Their only other shot came in the seventh, when they again loaded the bases with two outs, this time against reliever Oscar Villarreal. Villarreal, though, struck out shortstop Felipe Lopez on a 3-2 pitch, and Washington went quietly into the night.
"We had a chance. We loaded the bases," Fick said. "I'm not pointing the fingers at anybody. We just collectively didn't get the big hit tonight."