- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 14, 2007

BALTIMORE — Felipe Lopez stood just outside the batter’s box, a look of disgust on his face as he started jawing at plate umpire Bill Miller, who had just called a strike on a pitch below his knees.

Inside the Washington Nationals dugout, manager Manny Acta realized what was potentially about to happen. His team tied with the Baltimore Orioles with two outs in the 11th inning, the bases loaded and only reserve catcher Jesus Flores still available on his bench, Acta raced up the steps and put himself between Lopez and Miller.

“I had to go out there and just calm him down,” Acta said. “Speak a little Spanish with him and keep him cool and make sure he went through his at-bat without any more arguing with the umpire. … I think [Miller] was pretty close to throwing him out of the game.”

Thankfully for the Nationals, Lopez backed off. He composed himself, got back in the box and moments later delivered perhaps his biggest hit since joining the franchise a year ago. His three-run triple down the right-field line off Orioles closer Chris Ray capped a wild game and gave Washington a 9-6, extra-inning victory on a night both teams seemingly did everything they could to lose.

“I’m just happy we won, that’s all,” said Lopez, whose clutch hit snapped a 1-for-21 slump that had left the second baseman in a foul mood for a week.

Everyone inside the Nationals clubhouse was happy after this one. Even if it took a bit longer than the team would have preferred, even if it featured a pair of implosions by a normally reliable bullpen, Washington somehow emerged with its second straight win and secured its fourth straight road series victory.

The wild finish came after a fine performance by rookie left-hander Matt Chico, who didn’t figure into the decision but surely deserved to earn his first win since May 17 after allowing two earned runs over 62/3 innings.

Chico handed a 4-2 lead to his bullpen in the seventh. But then in succession, Jesus Colome issued a five-pitch walk (with a wild pitch thrown in), Ray King surrendered an RBI single on his only pitch of the game and Jon Rauch surrendered a two-run, bloop single on his first pitch upon entering.

Just like that, the Nationals trailed 5-4 and were in need of a late rally. Then for Washington, the Baltimore bullpen came to the rescue.

Todd Williams opened the eighth with a pair of walks sandwiched around a forceout. Lefty Jamie Walker came on to retire Dmitri Young for the second out, but right-hander Chad Bradford couldn’t finish things off. He allowed an RBI single to Austin Kearns (Kearns’ third hit of the night) and then a subsequent RBI single to Ryan Church up the middle that put the Nationals back on top 6-5.

“I think we felt the whole game like we should have won the game,”

Kearns said. “We caught a couple tough breaks, which happens, but we kept fighting, staying in there and finished it off.”

But not immediately. Closer Chad Cordero came on for the ninth, looking to secure his 10th save of the season, but walked leadoff man Melvin Mora.

A couple of flyouts put him in position to finish off the game, but Aubrey Huff beat out an infield single and Jay Payton followed with a check-swing, bloop single just beyond second base that tied the game and was greeted with a huge roar from the Camden Yards crowd of 21,782.

“It was a weird play,” Acta said. “After we saw the replay, it looked even weirder.”

So the game went into extra innings. Neither team scored in the 10th, and Ray retired the first two Nationals he faced in the 11th. But his downfall was swift and painful.

Robert Fick blooped a single to left. Ryan Langerhans and Cristian Guzman each drew walks. That brought Lopez to the plate with the bases loaded and a chance to win it. Ray’s first pitch was a ball, then his second looked low to Lopez (though it was called a strike by Miller).

Lopez immediately started jawing at the umpire as everyone in the Washington dugout held his breath.

“You don’t want him to get thrown out of the game at a point like that,” Kearns said. “It’s a pretty big spot.”

With an assist from an intervening Acta, Lopez recovered. He took another low pitch, this time for a ball, then turned on Ray’s next offering and drove the ball just inside first base and down the line. Fick scored, Langerhans scored, Guzman scored and Lopez chugged all the way around to third, having channeled his emotions into something positive and having helped turn what could have been a disastrous Washington loss into an uplifting win.

“The credit goes to Lopez,” Acta said. “He’s the one that has the good at-bat and had that huge hit for us over there.”