The three-run first inning was surprising. The pinpoint control from Matt Chico in 51/3 innings was dazzling. And the crisp and clean ninth inning from Chad Cordero to secure the Washington Nationals' 4-3 win over the New York Mets last night was downright spectacular.
How's that for an unforeseen turn of events at RFK Stadium?
The way things had gone for the Nationals in the last month, no one could have predicted those three developments would come together in one fell swoop. Washington hadn't scored a single first-inning run in its first 22 games. Chico had been all over the place in his first four career starts. And Cordero had been anything but dominant the first four times he was given the ball with a lead.
But when it all came together like it did last night before 21,662 at RFK, the result was a thing of baseball beauty for the Nationals, who opened this brief, three-game homestand on a high note and managed to beat the high-powered Mets for the second time in three games this season.
"It's a good game to win, because it shows the guys what we've been preaching," manager Manny Acta said. "Yes, those are great teams, but if you do things right ... you never know. On any given day, you can beat a good team."
Washington's modest two-game winning streak wouldn't have been possible without last night's early scoring spree.
The Nationals have had so much trouble scoring in the first inning this season that it didn't really cause much of a stir around the park when the home team put two men on with two out in its first at-bat. But when Austin Kearns connected on a 1-1 pitch from Oliver Perez and sent it over the left-center fence, the crowd (and the home dugout) erupted.
"I read something right before the game that we hadn't scored in the first inning," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "[Acta] kind of looked at me and gave me a big high-five and an 'Oh!' "
Yes, in their 23rd game of the season, the Nationals finally scored a first-inning run. Make that three runs, all courtesy of Kearns' big blast. And with that, their pursuit of infamy came to an end. They did set the National League record for consecutive games to open a season without a first-inning run, but they fell six short of the major league record of 28 (set by the 1948 Chicago White Sox).
"I actually was looking at a [newspaper] today and I saw something in there about it," Kearns said. "I didn't know it was actually a record and all that stuff. Glad it's over."
The early offensive support had to have been a significant confidence boost to Chico, who started the second inning with a lead.
The rookie left-hander was coming off a horrific outing in Florida, one in which he walked seven and had two wild pitches (one that infamously landed in the second row of the first-base stands). So as he sat in the clubhouse preparing for this start, Chico came up with a new game plan.
"Just let them hit it," he said. "It doesn't matter if I give up hits. I just don't want to walk anybody. That was my whole goal."
Chico (2-2) executed the plan to perfection. He gave up hits nine in 51/3 innings, but he didn't walk a single batter until David Wright reached to lead off the sixth. The difference in his strike-to-ball ratio was staggering. Against the Marlins, he threw only 47 percent of his pitches for strikes (53 of 112). This time, he found the plate 68 percent of the time (67 of 98).
"We tried to make him concentrate on throwing strike one instead of just going low and away, low and away," Acta said. "At this level, strike one is so important, and he did that more than in his last outing."
Even when Chico faltered in the sixth, loading the bases with one out, reliever Saul Rivera came in to strike out Perez and got Jose Reyes to ground out to preserve Washington's 3-2 lead.
That lead was briefly extended to 4-2 when Ryan Church singled home Dmitri Young, but setup man Jon Rauch gave the run back on consecutive doubles in the eighth.
Which meant Cordero had to hold onto a one-run lead in the ninth, staring down the top of New York's vaunted lineup.
Cordero, who had blown two of his first three save opportunities and entered with a 5.23 ERA, got Reyes to foul out, Paul Lo Duca to fly out and Carlos Beltran to pop out for his first 1-2-3 save of the season and ease some concerns about his season-long struggles.
"It helps me a whole lot," Cordero said. "It gives me a lot more confidence, especially getting them in order."
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