- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 7, 2008

ATLANTA | The crowd squealed with delight as three Atlanta Braves players stormed around the bases and crossed the plate. The hometown team had just scored three times in the ninth to beat the Washington Nationals by a run.

Not so fast.

Had Kelly Johnson’s bases-loaded blast off Joel Hanrahan remained in the field of play, the Braves and their fans could have celebrated. But that deep drive off the warning track in right-center field caromed up over the fence and into the bleachers, a ground-rule double that forced Atlanta to send the winning runner back to third base and keep Washington’s slim hopes alive.

“I’m thinking positive, that we’re going to catch the ball,” manager Manny Acta said. “But as soon as I saw [right fielder] Elijah [Dukes] didn’t catch the ball, I thought the ballgame was over.

“Then I saw it bounce over. We caught a break.”

Some 30 minutes later, Acta and his Nationals could laugh about it all back inside the visitors’ clubhouse at Turner Field. Somehow, they escaped, getting out of that jam and then scoring three times in the 10th to pull off an 8-5 win.

“We’ve had some of those before work against us,” Acta said. “That’s how the game goes. We’re doing better now, so here and there we’re going to catch a break.”

The Nationals didn’t just catch the break, they took advantage of it. Pinch hitter Ryan Langerhans ignited the winning rally with a leadoff homer off Atlanta closer Mike Gonzalez, the Nationals’ fifth solo homer of the evening.

Cristian Guzman later tripled and scored on Ryan Zimmerman’s double just inside the right-field foul line. A single by Elijah Dukes - capping a 4-for-5, three RBI night - made it 8-5 and provided some cushion for right-hander Steven Shell, who earned his second career save in the bottom of the 10th.

“You want to try to get the momentum back in a hurry when you go to extra innings like that,” Langerhans said. “So to put us back in the lead, it felt pretty good.”

The game appeared well in hand when Hanrahan entered in the ninth with the Nationals leading 5-3 on the strength of another quality start from Tim Redding and solo homers from Zimmerman, Willie Harris and Dukes (who clubbed a pair).

But things quickly devolved as Washington’s first-time closer put himself into a jam. A leadoff single by Casey Kotchman, a one-out double by Jeff Francoeur and a five-pitch walk to Greg Norton left the bases loaded and put the onus on Hanrahan to work his way out of it.

He nearly did, striking out Josh Anderson on a pair of sharp-breaking sliders and then getting Johnson to swing at another one. But Hanrahan tried to sneak one more slider past Johnson and paid for it.

“Late in the game, you get hyped up and get in a hurry and you want to end the game,” Hanrahan said. “I just kind of went away from thinking. I wasn’t thinking out there. I was just throwing the ball. Live and learn.”

As Johnson’s drive sailed toward the fence in right-center, the range of emotions on the faces of the Nationals players said it all.

“I either thought it was going to be an out or a home run, I guess,” Hanrahan said.

Added Langerhans: “I think everyone was kind of holding their breath, not knowing if that ball was going to go out or bounce off the wall. Fortunately for us, it was a ground-rule double.”

Given new life when the ball bounced over the fence, Hanrahan came through by a slim margin. Brian McCann bounced a high-hopper over the mound and past the pitcher, but Guzman came charging in from shortstop to make the throw to first just in time to get McCann.

“It felt like it took a long time,” Hanrahan said. “I think back in my earlier days, I could have made that play. But Guzy made a great play.”

And thanks to a forceful rally in the 10th, a ballgame that was at first won and then lost was locked up for Washington.

“That right there just lets you know what type of team we have right now,” Dukes said. “We don’t give up. We battle. And that’s something that we didn’t do in the beginning of the season. We took everything for granted. Now we’re out there to win.”

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