- The Washington Times - Monday, September 8, 2008

ATLANTA | As the game dragged on and the late-afternoon shadows extended farther across the Turner Field infield, there was legitimate reason to wonder whether either the Washington Nationals or the Atlanta Braves ever would score another run and win Sunday’s marathon.

With players on both sides physically and mentally exhausted from a long game and a long season and with both managers owning a deep and fresh bullpen thanks to expanded September rosters, the prospects for a game-winning rally looked bleak.

At last, though, Elijah Dukes said enough was enough. The Nationals’ most productive player since his return from the disabled list two weeks ago came to the plate with the bases loaded in the 14th, having gone hitless in his previous six at-bats but determined not to let a 15th inning become necessary.

“I didn’t start thinking till about the 10th inning. That’s when I realized I’m like dying out there,” he said. “I was like, ‘Man, you gotta do something.’”

Dukes did. His three-run double down the left-field line brought Washington all the way back and finished off a 7-4 victory that - while exhausting - was a lot sweeter than it would have been had this team played 4 hours, 34 minutes and lost.

The proceedings began at 1:36 p.m., with a crowd of 30,753 hoping to see the Braves pull off a series victory. It ended at 6:10 p.m. with only a fraction of those fans still in attendance and the 10 players who made it all the way from start to finish drained.

“It’s real tough to keep your energy up,” center fielder Lastings Milledge said. “Fatigue set in on both sides. That’s why I think the game went on longer than it was supposed to.”

An astounding 51 combined players appeared in the game, 21 of them pitchers, though three of those never set foot on the mound. Washington’s Odalis Perez pinch hit in the 14th, as did Atlanta’s James Parr, and Jair Jurrjens pinch ran in the 13th as managers Manny Acta and Bobby Cox used almost every option they had.

“We kept telling the guys to find the energy and try to outlast them,” Acta said. “At times, guys tend to get down and probably think somebody else is going to get it done. You have to tough it out and try to outlast the opposition with your energy.”

Nationals rookie catcher Luke Montz, making only his second career start, was behind the plate for all 14 innings and all 222 pitches.

“You don’t prepare yourself for a game like that,” Montz said. “But I’m glad I got to stay in the whole 14 innings. [The Braves] went through all three of their catchers, and I just fought to stay in.”

The day began in inauspicious style for the Nationals and starter Collin Balester, who was charged with four runs and 11 hits in six innings but was done in by one factor out of his control: the sun.

On a blindingly bright afternoon, Washington’s fielders had all kinds of trouble picking up fly balls. And on one notable play in the second inning, it cost them. With two men on and two out, Chipper Jones hit a routine fly ball to left-center field. Milledge trekked over to make the play, but even with sunglasses on, he was blinded by the sun.

“It was just a bright day, no clouds,” he said. “Then you’ve got fans with white T-shirts in the background. It’s kind of tough to pick up the ball.”

So the ball fell in harmlessly, both runners came around to score and Balester was charged with two runs through no fault of his own.

Those two runs loomed large for most of the afternoon, with the Nationals trailing 4-1 heading into the seventh. But Alberto Gonzalez, who enjoyed the best game of his brief career, clubbed his first major league homer off Atlanta starter Jo-Jo Reyes to move Washington one run closer.

One inning later, the 25-year-old infielder tied the game with a two-run double just inside the right-field foul line, capping a day in which he went 3-for-4 with a homer, a double, three RBI, a walk and a hit-by-pitch.

But neither team could deliver the final blow required to win the game in nine innings, so on it went into the late afternoon shadows, two sub-.500 teams trying to keep themselves sharp and hoping someone - anyone - would come through.

“Everybody was feeling those 4 1/2 hours,” Dukes said. “I know I was feeling it. I’m going to probably feel that for the next two days.”

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