- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 5, 2007

The ball landed down the left-field line, fair by perhaps less than a foot, and bounced into the stands. That’s when the celebration began.

Robert Fick came bursting out of the Washington Nationals’ dugout, made a beeline for Dmitri Young and embraced his longtime friend and teammate in the middle of the diamond. They were quickly joined by a mob scene of players and coaches, who piled onto Young and bounced up and down as if they had just won the pennant.

Obviously, they hadn’t. The Nationals merely won their first game of the season, albeit in thrilling fashion. Trailing the Florida Marlins by five runs in the fifth, they rallied to score three in the sixth and then three more in the ninth to walk out of RFK Stadium with a stunning 7-6 victory.

Around here, that’s cause for major celebration.

“This is priceless,” Fick said. “To get that monkey off our back. … This is why we play the game, to pull something off like that in the ninth inning.”

Young’s one-out, bases-loaded single off Jorge Julio capped a wild rally before a matinee crowd of 18,835 that had dwindled to a few thousand by day’s end. Those who stayed were rewarded with a dramatic comeback, the first major league win in manager Manny Acta’s career.

Acta, who received an on-field hug from Young, also received two bottles of champagne (one from the Nationals, one from New York Mets general manager and former boss Omar Minaya) once he returned to the clubhouse.

“It was kind of fun to see the players go out there [on the field],” Acta said. “You know, we just snapped a two-game losing streak, and they’re celebrating like we clinched the East. That tells me a lot about their character.”

It took all the character the Nationals could muster to pull of this unforeseen victory. After getting manhandled by the Marlins the previous two days, then falling behind 5-0 in the third inning of the series finale, they easily could have started doubting themselves and questioned whether they ever would win a game.

Inside the home dugout, though, there was no sense of dismay. That, several players said, was a product of Acta and his coaching staff.

“Their attitude is patience,” Fick said. “They know we’re going to take our lumps. They know some bad things are going to happen. But they’re not kicking [stuff] in the dugout. They’re not yelling at guys. They’re teaching. They’re helping guys when they make mistakes.”

Washington’s patience paid off. The rally began in the sixth with back-to-back, two-out singles by Young and Brian Schneider that preceded a three-run homer by Ryan Church. What had been a 6-1 Marlins blowout was now a 6-4 nailbiter.

Thanks to a workman-like effort from six relievers who combined to toss five scoreless innings after rookie starter Matt Chico was knocked out in the fifth, the Nationals came to bat in the ninth knowing they still had a chance.

They wasted no time attacking Julio, the former Baltimore Orioles closer whom the Marlins acquired only 10 days ago to pitch in this kind of situation. Ronnie Belliard (3-for-4 in his first game as starting second baseman) blooped a double down the left-field line to get things started. Fick followed with a line drive single over the shortstop’s head, scoring Belliard and cutting the deficit to one.

Then, the key moment of execution in the inning. Felipe Lopez dropped down a perfect sacrifice bunt to move Fick into scoring position, the kind of fundamental play that had been so lacking from Washington the previous two days.

When rookie Kory Casto laced a hard grounder past shortstop Hanley Ramirez, Fick came barreling around to score the tying run. A bloop single to right by Ryan Zimmerman and a four-pitch walk by Austin Kearns loaded the bases and set the stage for Young.

“We really don’t feel any pressure,” Zimmerman said. “We’ve got nothing to lose this year. That’s the way we’re looking at it. I mean, everyone thinks we’re going to lose anyway, so we might as well go out there and play free, and that’s what we did today.”

Young, the 33-year-old first baseman who hit bottom last winter after a litany of personal and health problems, showed why he’s still regarded as one of the better professional hitters in the game. Needing only to get the ball out of the infield to drive the winning run in, he fisted a 2-0 fastball from Julio down the left-field line. Florida’s Josh Willingham let the ball drop, hoping it might fall foul and prevent Casto from tagging up, but it landed just inside the white chalk and bounced into the stands.

“We never gave up,” Young said.

Young was talking about the Nationals as a whole in yesterday’s game, but he might as well have been talking about the people around him who gave him a second chance to resurrect his career.

From baseball oblivion to game-winning hit in about six months. That’s why Fick couldn’t wait to rush the field and greet Young following the biggest hit of this infant season.

“He’s come a long way,” Fick said. “We grew up together. He’s one of my best friends in baseball. I know how good he’s doing off the field and on the field. Everybody in this clubhouse loves him, and everybody will lean on him this season.”

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