- The Washington Times - Monday, August 22, 2005

NEW YORK — Even when the Washington Nationals erupted for six runs in the first inning, even when they got a gutsy performance from Esteban Loaiza on short rest, even when they brought their closer in to protect a four-run lead in the ninth inning, Frank Robinson never allowed himself to feel comfortable yesterday.

“I knew it was going to be a struggle before it was over,” the Nationals manager said. “We never do anything easy.”

No, they don’t. And so it was that the New York Mets, who had been dominated to that point, actually brought the tying run to the plate in the ninth inning at Shea Stadium.

But unlike the previous night, when the Nationals stormed back to tie a game they had no business tying, the rally stopped here. Chad Cordero, as he has done so many times this year, pitched his way out of the jam. He struck out New York’s David Wright with a wicked slider, and the Nationals went home happy with a 7-4 victory.

It was an important win, in more than one respect. Not only did the Nationals (65-59) avoid what would have been a devastating sweep at the hands of the Mets, they managed to keep pace with the rest of the National League’s wild-card contenders. At day’s end, they remained 1 games behind the leading Philadelphia Phillies, one game behind the Houston Astros and a half-game behind the third-place Florida Marlins.

Washington also managed to salvage a winning record (7-6) in its longest road trip of the season. It could have been a far more productive trip, considering the five one-run losses over the last two weeks, but it was good enough to keep the team in the thick of the playoff race.

“It’s always good to win the last game, and it’s always better to win one than to be swept,” Robinson said. “But overall, especially this late in the season, we’ve got to take care of business better than we did on this road trip. We’ve got to win the games we should win, and that’s what we didn’t do on this road trip. We could have won two or three other games on this road trip very easily.”

The Nationals were well on their way to winning this one with ease, thanks to perhaps their best first inning of the year. They sent 11 men to the plate, knocked Mets starter Kris Benson out, scored six runs, rapped out four doubles and produced seven straight hits with two outs.

Even their first two outs were productive: a groundball to the right side by Jose Vidro that moved Ryan Church to third base, followed by Nick Johnson’s sacrifice fly to right.

It was a thing of beauty for a Washington lineup that had scored six runs in a game only 28 times.

“It was nice to get all those at-bats,” said Church, who led off for the first time in his career and had two hits in the inning. “That’s what I was thinking: ‘Shoot, I’ve already been up twice after the first inning.’”

Amazingly, it was the Nationals’ second six-run inning in less than 24 hours. Perhaps still feeling their oats from Saturday night’s six-run seventh and two-run ninth, they came out yesterday and picked up where they left off.

And how’s this for the mother of all statistics: In a span of five innings Saturday and Sunday, the Nationals scored 14 runs. Over their previous 43 innings, they had scored nine.

So was there a carryover effect from Saturday?

“I don’t think anyone’s ever proven that momentum doesn’t go to sleep,” Robinson said. “So I’ll say, yeah.”

The early fireworks were just what Loaiza needed; he was pitching on three days’ rest but took the mound already knowing he had some room to work with. For four innings of one-hit ball, the right-hander was spot-on. In the fifth, though, the fatigue started catching up to him. He allowed a pair of singles, then a three-run homer to Mike Jacobs in his first career at-bat.

Loaiza (8-9) kept battling. He got out of a jam in the sixth by striking out Ramon Castro with two on, then finally departed with one out in the seventh after throwing 97 pitches.

“I know later on I’m going to be really tired,” said Loaiza, who improved to 11-2 for his career when pitching on short rest. “But I took one for the team today.”

Their starter exhausted, the Nationals’ bullpen picked up the slack. Joey Eischen was called upon with the bases loaded and two outs in the seventh to face Cliff Floyd and promptly struck out the Mets’ cleanup hitter on three consecutive curveballs.

“[Robinson] put the ball in my court, and I was just fortunate enough to win the battle this time,” Eischen said.

Cordero saved the best escape job for last. Called on to pitch the ninth even with a four-run lead, the 23-year-old closer proceeded to walk the first batter, fumble a comebacker to the mound for an error, then watch as Johnson let a hard grounder go through his legs to allow a run to score.

Cordero then fell behind Wright 2-0, only to respond with three straight strikes to end the game. He wasn’t credited with his 40th save of the year, but he did lower his ERA to a microscopic 0.99 as only he can.

“When we made those two errors in the ninth, I knew we were all right,” Robinson said. “Because Cordero was on the mound, and he always wants to make it tough on you before getting the job done.”

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