Braves win late in series opener

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The clock had long since passed midnight, the rain had been falling for hours and most of a crowd of 18,568 had filtered its way out of RFK Stadium.

What few hearty souls stuck around for the longest game (in terms of time) since the Washington Nationals were born in 2005 weren’t rewarded for their patience. They watched as the home team squandered a seventh-inning lead, swapped zeroes with the Atlanta Braves for another couple hours and then ultimately lost 8-5 in 13 excruciating innings.

Jeff Francoeur’s two-run, bases-loaded single off Jesus Colome finally broke a tie that had existed since the ninth. Andruw Jones’ subsequent sacrifice fly added an insurance run for the Braves and — following the second Presidents’ Race of the night the Nationals went down quietly in the bottom of the inning, suffering their third straight loss (the last two coming in extra innings).

The game ended at 12:34 a.m., some five hours and 13 minutes after it began, making it the Nationals’ longest game of the last three seasons.

Nearly every available player on both teams’ rosters was needed to get through this one. The Nationals used 23 players (including eight pitchers and all seven bench reserves) and the Braves also used 23 (including eight pitchers).

Washington had taken a 5-3 lead on Ryan Zimmerman’s two-run homer in the seventh, an opposite-field blast into the home bullpen.

Ronnie Belliard, who led off the inning with an infield single, circled the bases ahead of Zimmerman, who extended his team-leading RBI total to 87. After a slow start to the season, the young third baseman still has an outside shot at reaching triple digits in RBI for the second straight year.

But Washington’s bullpen couldn’t hold the lead. Jon Rauch gave one run back in the eighth (with an assist from left fielder Wily Mo Pena, who misplayed Jones’ fly ball to the warning track into a double) and Chad Cordero gave up the tying run in the ninth in frustrating fashion.

Cordero has blown five saves in 18 career opportunities against the Braves, his worst mark against any opponent, and he didn’t take long to let this one slip away. Edgar Renteria lined a ball off the pitcher’s leg and beat it out for a one-out single to start things off. Chipper Jones then laced a double into the right-field corner, bringing home the tying run and bringing groans from the waterlogged crowd, which now had to endure through extra innings.

The late drama capped a slow game that got off to a late start because of the weather. The Nationals took the field under a light drizzle that delayed the start of the game 16 minutes, donning a new addition to their uniforms: a patch on their left sleeves commemorating the final season of baseball at RFK.

This 10-game homestand figures to be emotional for long-time sports fans in the area who grew up watching the Senators and Redskins in the multipurpose venue. The current Nationals don’t harbor quite the same feelings about their temporary home of the last three seasons and can’t wait to make the three-mile move southwest to their new Anacostia riverfront ballpark next spring.

“I only spent a year here, so I’m not going to be that nostalgic about it,” manager Manny Acta said. “I enjoyed my year here. I enjoyed myself very much. But I think I’m looking forward to the new stadium. Who isn’t?”

Well, the Washington pitching staff, for one. RFK’s spacious outfield gaps have been a godsend for hurlers the last three seasons.

Matt Chico didn’t need the large dimensions last night, though he did get off to a horrendous start in the first, loading the bases on three straight singles and then serving up a two-run double to Mark Teixeira before ever recording an out.

But what looked like it would be a quick night for Chico turned into his ninth quality start of the season. The rookie left-hander shook off his early troubles, made it through a three-run, 31-pitch first inning and tossed scoreless ball over the next five.

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