- The Washington Times - Monday, September 7, 2009

Facts are facts, and the Washington Nationals almost certainly will lose more than 100 games for the second straight season. They know this, and they know they can’t hide from it.

But there are ballclubs that lose 100 games without putting up much of a fight, playing out the string with no emotion and counting down the hours to the offseason. And then there are ballclubs like the Nationals, who are determined not to reach such depths without at least giving the maximum effort on the field.

It may not matter to most how a team gets to 100 losses. But it does matter to the Nationals, who proved Sunday they’re going to play all the way through Oct. 4 with gusto, even if this season was lost long ago.

With a dramatic 5-4 victory over the Florida Marlins - a back-and-forth affair that ended on Ryan Zimmerman’s two-run homer in the ninth - Washington pulled off one of its most-satisfying wins of the year. For those among the crowd of 22,325 who stuck it out to the end and those who have stuck it out with this team all season, the sight of Zimmerman leaping onto home plate amid a sea of bouncing teammates was indeed sweet.

“It just shows the world that team doesn’t quit,” said interim manager Jim Riggleman, whose club snapped an eight-game losing streak.

The Nationals (47-90) certainly gave the wild-card-contending Marlins all they could handle Sunday, even if it took a while for the ultimate payoff. A tight pitchers’ duel included Florida eking out a pair of runs off rookie starter J.D. Martin and taking a 2-0 lead into the eighth inning. A Washington lineup that had been mostly stymied by these opponents all season looked ready to concede another defeat.

And then everything changed, starting with a two-out walk drawn by Elijah Dukes. That free pass set in motion a sequence of events that involved seven straight Nationals batters reaching base safely, capped by Zimmerman’s game-winning homer an inning later.

Dukes’ walk in the eighth was followed by a Josh Bard single, then a walk by Wil Nieves. With the bases loaded and two out, Riggleman entrusted the game to little-used pinch hitter Mike Morse, who came through. Morse grounded a sharp single up the middle, scoring two runs to tie the game and perhaps setting the Nationals up to take the lead right there.

But then confusion reigned on the bases. Center fielder Cameron Maybin’s throw to the plate sailed to the backstop, so Nieves began to take off for third, only to slam on the brakes when the ball caromed to pitcher Kiko Calero. The problem: Morse kept running around first and didn’t see Nieves in front of him until it was too late. He was tagged out, and the inning ended with the game still tied 2-2.

“It’s just one of those weird plays that’s do or die,” Nieves said, upset at himself for not continuing on to third. “Probably next time, I’ll just go… so that doesn’t happen.”

Whatever goodwill Washington amassed during that rally quickly dissipated into the late-afternoon air because reliever Mike MacDougal came on to pitch the ninth and immediately let the Marlins retake a two-run lead via a single, a wild pitch, a walk and another single (this one by ex-Nationals player Nick Johnson).

So now Florida led 4-2 heading into the bottom of the ninth, and the Nationals had every reason to concede defeat. Inside the dugout, though, there were no such feelings of despair. Riggleman, who jots down notes on his lineup card throughout the game, didn’t have a single negative thing written.

“Our ballclub was playing hard all day,” he said. “They were getting after it. J.D. Martin was battling his tail off out there. So many good things were happening. We just could not get the big hit. We couldn’t get over the hump.”

And then Willie Harris led off the ninth and tattooed the first pitch from right-hander Leo Nunez into the right-field bullpen to cut the lead to 4-3 and bring new life to the ballpark.

“When Willie hit that home run, it was just a spark of energy,” MacDougal said. “Anything could happen from there.”

Cristian Guzman followed by beating out a slow grounder to second, bringing Zimmerman to the plate representing the winning run. Washington’s All-Star third baseman has developed a reputation over the last four years for winning games in dramatic fashion, but he had yet to do it in 2009.

Until he turned on Nunez’s 1-1 change-up and deposited it into the Red Porch seats beyond the left-center-field fence and gave the Nationals a highlight-reel moment at a time when things had appeared to hit rock-bottom.

“We’re never going to quit,” Zimmerman said. “We play to the last out. You never know what’s going to happen. We’re going to play hard to the end, no matter how many games we lose or how many games we’re back. That’s the way we’ve been taught to play.”

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