For any team, winning a 12-inning baseball game on a 90-degree Sunday afternoon takes a few acts of resourcefulness.
For a team that just finished the kind of week the Washington Nationals did, it takes that plus a minor miracle or two.
There was little to suggest the Nationals could pull out a win over the Baltimore Orioles as they entered their half of the 12th down a run. Not when they had started the day with one more win (three) than players they put on the disabled list (two) during the first eight games of their homestand.
Not when their new leadoff hitter boarded a plane in Erie, Pa., at 6:30 on Sunday morning, caught a connection in Philadelphia and arrived at Nationals Park two hours before game time. Not when they had used four different left fielders and their bullpen had worked nine innings in the past two days and not when manager Manny Acta was concocting the following scenario had the game reached the 13th inning:
"Paul [Lo Duca] was going to catch, [pinch hitter] Dmitri [Young] was going to play first, Aaron Boone was going to go to third base [from first], Ronnie [Belliard] was going to go to second [from third] and then Pete Orr to left field [from second]," Acta said matter-of-factly. "That's it. They've all been there before."
So after one of the most grueling weeks of a long season, perhaps it's appropriate that the Nationals pulled out a 3-2 win when Ronnie Belliard flailed at one of George Sherrill's curveballs and fouled off another, then took a fastball that came inches from a game-ending called strike before parking a slider in the left-field stands.
It salvaged a 4-5 homestand and a season split with the Orioles and sent the Nationals on a seven-game road trip with their eighth walk-off win among 18 home victories this year.
"It was so tiresome for some of the guys," Acta said. "At times, it's more mentally draining than physically. But the guys just kept on going, even to the last inning."
Before a crowd of 39,824 that set a Nationals Park record for the second straight day, Jason Bergmann posted a quality start for the third straight time as he allowed one run on six hits in seven innings. Sixty-two of his 100 pitches were strikes, and as the game wore on, he corralled his off-speed pitches and used them as effectively as he has all year.
"I left some curveballs up, some sliders were not overly spectacular," he said. "But I think they were all pretty good. Throwing inside and out and mixing speeds was the key today."
The only run he gave up, on a homer to Luke Scott in the seventh inning, wasn't even because of a major mistake. With Wil Nieves calling for a fastball low and away, Bergmann left the pitch partly over the plate, and Scott reached down and hammered it to center to tie the game at 1-1.
Bergmann was matched at every turn by Orioles right-hander Jeremy Guthrie, who, after loading the bases to start the game, allowed just one run in the first and squelched the Nationals' offense after that.
Two batters reached base against him after the second inning, one of them doing so with two outs in the fourth.
The Nationals didn't manage much against Baltimore's bullpen, either. They missed a chance in the eighth inning when Class AA call-up Roger Bernadina (who led off the game with his first big league hit and scored Washington's first run) couldn't lay down a bunt and move Felipe Lopez to second.
So the game stretched into the 12th when Luis Ayala cracked after two perfect innings. He gave up back-to-back singles to start the inning before Charlie Manning and Joel Hanrahan recorded two outs.
But then Adam Jones punched a low fastball to right to drive in Nick Markakis. And Baltimore got two quick outs in the bottom half.
Still, the Nationals had one more surge. Young drew a two-out walk, and while Acta hurriedly juggled his lineup in case the tying run put any of his emergency scenarios into practice, he and pitching coach Randy St. Claire discussed the upcoming at-bat. Acta told St. Claire that Belliard would hit a home run.
And however improbably, Belliard delivered.
"I think that's a team," Belliard said. "I want to win some games where I just lay back and win it. But I think right now, if this is the way we have to win, hey, you've got to take it."