- The Washington Times - Friday, August 7, 2009

The ballgame was only two innings old, the starting pitcher had already been knocked out, and the physical and mental strain of 22 straight games without a day off was taking its toll on the Washington Nationals.

Down six runs to the Florida Marlins in a rare Thursday matinee on South Capitol Street, the Nationals wouldn’t have offended anyone had they rolled over and conceded defeat right then.

And perhaps had this game taken place in April, May or June, that’s exactly what would have happened. These, however, are not the same Nationals who slogged their way through a wretched three months of baseball. These guys have taken on a different persona, and that’s how this 12-8 victory over the Marlins was possible in the first place.

“Everyone’s brimming with confidence right now,” reliever Jason Bergmann said.

“It feels good coming in every day and thinking about winning,” added second baseman Ronnie Belliard.

Or as interim manager Jim Riggleman put it: “Nobody in that room has doubts they can come back.”

Why should they doubt themselves the way they’re playing these days? Winners of five straight and nine of their last 13, the Nationals have completed a stunning metamorphosis from historically bad club to feisty competitor. And the last three days confirmed that.

It was one thing for Washington to win a few games against the dregs of the National League, the New York Mets, the San Diego Padres, the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was quite another to sweep the contending Marlins and to do so with a pair of stirring comebacks.

Tuesday night’s 6-4 victory — with all six runs coming in the eighth inning — was impressive. Thursday’s comeback, though, may have dwarfed it because of the chain of events it required.

Looking thoroughly dead in the water after two innings, down 6-0 after a poor start by rookie Craig Stammen, the Nationals had little business turning this one around. Their only hope was to chip away at the Florida lead and squeeze every last ounce out of a bullpen that was already running on fumes.

Somehow, some way, they did just that. Washington’s lineup produced 12 runs on 11 hits in a five-inning span. And that overworked relief corps cobbled together 7 1/3 innings of brilliance, paving the way for the big comeback and giving the crowd of 23,691 plenty of reason to head home happy.

In the process, the Nationals erased their biggest deficit in a home game since an equally impressive rally from six runs down to beat the New York Yankees on June 17, 2006.

“It’s nice to do it to the other team instead of them doing it to us,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “It’s a good position to be in, and we like it. It’s fun to win.”

There was no one player most responsible for this comeback. At least a half-dozen could claim to have been the star of the game. But credit first should go to Washington’s bullpen, which bailed out Stammen after the rookie starter was yanked only two outs into the second inning, having allowed seven of 12 batters faced to reach base.

“It just wasn’t my day today,” Stammen said. “Luckily, the whole team picked me up. Twenty-four guys showed up, and one didn’t. They did a great job today, and I’ve got to thank them for that.”

Logan Kensing churned out 3 1/3 innings, allowing a two-run homer to John Baker but keeping the game within reach. Ron Villone, Bergmann, Tyler Clippard, Sean Burnett and Jorge Sosa then bridged the gap, occasionally getting into trouble but counting on the next man in to save the day.

“We all knew this was the kind of game where we had to put our soreness aside and just go after it,” said Bergmann, who escaped a bases-loaded jam in the sixth. “We did as well as we could in the situations we were put in. And we’re certainly very happy to have a win for the team here.”

Washington’s lineup still had to get production across the board, though, to make this comeback complete. Alberto Gonzalez had a two-run double in the fourth. Zimmerman had a two-run homer in the fifth. Elijah Dukes tied the game with a solo homer in the seventh. And a great stretch of at-bats in the eighth — with Cristian Guzman drawing a walk, Nyjer Morgan dropping a perfect sacrifice bunt, Belliard singling in the go-ahead run and Zimmerman tripling to tack on some insurance — sealed the deal.

Put it all together, and the Nationals had themselves a dramatic come-from-behind victory and their first five-game winning streak of the season.

“We’ve just been playing good baseball,” Zimmerman said. “We don’t think we’re ever out of it. We want to do that the rest of the season.”

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