- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 27, 2007

NEW YORK — As they celebrated inside the cramped visitors” clubhouse at Shea Stadium, with the stereo blasting and a cake commemorating team owner Mark Lerner’s birthday, the Washington Nationals might as well have looked like a team that just clinched a playoff series.

In some ways, maybe this week is the Nationals’ postseason. Unable to play for real in October, they have decided to battle their final two opponents on the 2007 schedule: the contending New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies.

So after completing a three-game sweep of the first-place Mets last night with a 9-6 victory — in the process surpassing last season’s 71-win total — the Nationals earned the right to celebrate.

“It just shows you we’ve got the biggest heart,” outfielder Ryan Church said after his team rallied from five runs down to win before a stunned crowd of 51,940. “We just go out there and give everything we’ve got for nine innings and just never give up.”

In beating the Mets three straight nights by a combined score of 32-20, Washington (72-87) proved its mettle on a national stage and dealt New York a blow from which it may not be able to recover.

With four games to play, the Mets (87-71) still lead the Phillies by a game in the NL East. But they look desperate and ready to succumb to the pressure after getting shellacked by an upstart spoiler.

“I just don’t like that word [spoiler], because that’s not what we’re trying to do here,” Washington manager Manny Acta said. “We’re just trying to win games on a daily basis to put ourselves in the best position possible.”

The way last night’s game began, there was little reason to believe the Nationals would be a threat. Starter Mike Bacsik couldn’t even make it out of the third inning, serving up three towering home runs, two by Carlos Beltran, another by Moises Alou. By the time Acta took the ball from his hand and signaled for Joel Hanrahan out of the bullpen with one out in the third, the Mets already led 5-0.

But as this season (and certainly this series) has indicated, no one should count the Nationals out.

“These teams know us by now,” catcher Brian Schneider said. “We don’t give up.”

The rally began in the fourth.

Church delivered the first warning shot, a two-run homer to right. The big outburst, though, came an inning later when Mets right-hander Philip Humber, making his first career start, buckled. Humber gave up a walk, a single and double to open the inning before getting pulled in favor of sidewinder Joe Smith.

That move backfired. Ryan Zimmerman singled home a run, and Austin Kearns followed with his own RBI single, prompting Mets manager Willie Randolph to make another pitching change.

In came left-hander Pedro Feliciano, who managed to strike out Church on three pitches but couldn’t contain Wily Mo Pena. Pena laced a two-out double to left-center, bringing home the tying and go-ahead runs. And even though he ultimately got caught in a rundown between second and third, the big slugger produced the big hit that put the Nationals on top for good.

This win wouldn’t have been possible without the efforts of Washington’s bullpen. Pressed into overtime for much of the last month — Acta has remarkably used at least four pitchers in each of the last 22 games — the relief corps again rose to the challenge, with Chris Schroder, Jonathan Albaladejo, Saul Rivera and Jon Rauch each tossing a scoreless inning to send the game into the ninth.

“That was the whole key,” Acta said. “Because [the Mets] took the big lead at the beginning, and then our bullpen just stepped in and stopped them and gave us a chance to come back and win the ballgame.”

Church’s two-run double off Billy Wagner in the ninth made it 9-6 and would have set the stage for Chad Cordero to close it out. But Cordero suddenly felt ill and vomited in the bullpen, pressing Luis Ayala into surprise duty.

“It’s something that I guess was just sitting there,” Cordero said. “And soon as I got up [to warm up], it came out.”

Ayala tossed a perfect ninth for his first save in two years, and the Nationals departed for Philadelphia, determined to ruin another playoff contender’s season.

“It’s only going to get better,” Church said. “We’re going to Philly, and it’s going to be crazy there. I can’t wait.”

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