- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 1, 2005

They tried their best to strand every man they put on base. Two on in the first? Inning-ending fly out. Two on in the third? Inning-ending ground out. Two on in the fourth? Inning-ending double play, drawing a sustained boo from the crowd of 29,512.

Inside the Washington Nationals dugout last night, though, there was a sense of things to come. Even though they hadn’t hit in two weeks, hadn’t scored more than three runs in eight games, they felt they were on the verge of something big.

“We feel like if we keep giving ourselves opportunities, we’re eventually going to score,” outfielder Brad Wilkerson said.

They were right. At long last, the Nationals broke out of their clutch-hitting funk, in a big way and at a big moment. Trailing the first-place Atlanta Braves by three runs, Washington scored twice in the sixth, then three times in the seventh and hung on for a dramatic 5-4 victory that had RFK Stadium hopping and bopping for the first time in a long time.

It had been a while since the Nationals strung together a bunch of hits like this. They had failed to come through in the clutch so many times in recent weeks, it seemed as if they might never snap out of it.

Finally, they did. Washington (27-25) won its third straight following a season-worst five-game losing streak, improved to 11-6 in one-run games and earned its 17th come-from-behind victory of the year.

And thanks also to the Florida Marlins’ second-straight loss in Pittsburgh, the Nationals ended the night a mere 1-1/2 games back in the National League East.

“These guys don’t quit,” manager Frank Robinson said. “They don’t get down. They just say, ‘Hey, that’s OK,’ and then they come back.”

It took a little while last night for the Nationals to do it. Despite collecting at least one hit in each of the first four innings against Braves starter Mike Hampton, they could not push a single run across the plate. There were plenty of fingers to point, but it was hard not to single out Cristian Guzman, the .183-hitting shortstop who twice grounded into inning-ending double plays and was the target of the previously mentioned boos.

But as bad as things looked, once the Nationals worked their way into the soft underbelly of the Braves’ bullpen, the lights finally came on. Marlon Byrd grounded into a bases-loaded double play in the sixth, but at least it brought home a run. Backup catcher Gary Bennett, getting a rare start, then followed with an RBI single to left, cutting Atlanta’s lead to 3-2.

The rally continued in the seventh. Singles by Ryan Church and Jamey Carroll off loser Roman Colon (0-2) got things started. A single to left by Jose Guillen off Kevin Gryboski tied the game 3-3. And Nick Johnson came through with the night’s biggest blast, a two-run double down the right-field line off left-hander Kevin Foster that gave Washington the lead at long last.

“There’s not any give-up with anybody in this clubhouse,” Bennett said. “Regardless of the situation, we’re going to go out there and give you all we’ve got. Sometimes it’s going to work out. Sometimes it’s not. But it’s not going to wear on anybody in here mentally. We’ve got a great mix. Everybody’s doing their part.”

The Nationals’ bullpen has certainly done its part, though last night it was not without a few moments of trepidation. Luis Ayala (3-3) and Gary Majewski each tossed a scoreless inning of relief, setting the stage for closer Chad Cordero, who was called upon for the fourth straight day.

Just as he did the previous night, Cordero entered with a two-run lead and promptly surrendered a solo home run, this one to 46-year-old Julio Franco. Unlike the previous night, Cordero followed the homer by giving up back-to-back singles to Andruw Jones and Johnny Estrada.

There’s a reason Robinson has entrusted the closer’s job to this 23-year-old right-hander, though.

“Nothing seems to bother this kid,” Robinson said. “He seems to understand the urgency of the situation, and he goes up a notch or two or more.”

Sure enough, Cordero pitched his way out of the jam. He got Brian Jordan to ground into a forceout, then with the tying run 90 feet away, he struck out Brayan Pena and Rafael Furcal to end the game on a dramatic high note.

“I was a little nervous, but I was able to get out of it,” said Cordero, who earned his 13th save. “I managed to step it up when I needed to.”

Lost among the late-inning heroics was a stellar performance from Nationals starter John Patterson. Making his first appearance since May 15, when back spasms landed him on the 15-day disabled list, the right-hander recovered from a shaky first inning and wound up retiring 13 straight batters before departing after the fifth.

“Once I got into a flow, I got a feel for the game and opened some other things and started pounding the strike zone,” said Patterson, who allowed only one hit. “I felt like I had control of the game.”

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