- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 23, 2005

PITTSBURGH — Bruised, battered, beaten and barely able to speak, Ryan Church still managed to crack a smile.

“It’s worth it,” the Washington Nationals’ left fielder said of his game-saving, bone-crushing catch against the wall at PNC Park yesterday. “We got the win.”

A much-needed win at that. The Nationals’ 5-4 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates, which ended abruptly on Church’s circus catch of Humberto Cota’s deep drive to left, allowed this weary club to head home after a long road trip in good spirits.

Washington (42-30) managed to take five out of nine games from the Angels, Rangers and Pirates and now heads back to the friendly confines of RFK Stadium, where it has the majors’ best home record.

“This is what we have to do: battle to keep our heads above water on the road,” manager Frank Robinson said. “Now we go home and hopefully continue to play well.”

Church’s highlight-reel catch provided the final stamp on an intriguing and important series-clinching win over the Pirates before a matinee crowd of 24,064.

As spectacular as the climax was with Church slamming into the fence to preserve Chad Cordero’s 20th straight save and 23rd overall, John Patterson’s opening act was no less crucial. Uncertain the night before whether he would be able to make his scheduled start because of a bad back, the right-hander gutted out 61/3 innings on a hot, muggy day.

Patterson didn’t earn the win — that went to reliever Hector Carrasco, who was sparkling in his own right in escaping a seventh-inning, bases-loaded jam and then adding a 1-2-3 eighth. But Patterson earned the respect of his teammates, his coaches and his manager for sucking it up and throwing a season-high 116 pitches on a day the Nationals’ bullpen desperately needed a rest.

“That’s huge for him and the ballclub,” said catcher Brian Schneider, whose eighth-inning bloop single provided the game-winner for Washington. “Everyone knows he doesn’t feel good. … John showed a lot of people today he’s a tough kid.”

Not typically regarded as a workhorse in the vein of teammate Livan Hernandez, Patterson maybe took a step in that direction yesterday. He struggled early on, allowing four runs on three homers in the first two innings. One of the shots, a first-inning blast by Rob Mackowiak, traveled 460 feet to right field, bounced and landed in the Allegheny River.

Despite his struggles, Patterson walked up to Robinson in the dugout and made a bold promise: “I’m going seven innings today.”

Robinson’s response, perhaps not willing to believe it until he saw it: “Good, great. We could use it.”

Patterson made good on his promise. He retired 13 of 14 batters at one point, and though he allowed two singles and a walk in the seventh to load the bases, he departed having done his part to aid the Nationals’ cause.

“I learn something new about myself every time I go out there,” he said. “I just wasn’t going to let those guys get me.”

Carrasco (3-1) picked his fellow pitcher up. He got Tike Redman to ground into a force out at the plate, then struck out Jason Bay to end the inning and leave the bases loaded.

The game was tied 4-4 at that point, so the Nationals still had some work to do. They had fought back to tie the game thanks to a pair of homers by Jose Guillen, giving him four in the last three days and 15 for the season, and some heads-up baserunning by both Guillen and Jamey Carroll in the fifth.

With runners on the corners and two outs, Guillen got caught leaning off first base by Pirates starter Josh Fogg. The slugger, though, did what he was supposed to do in that situation: keep the rundown going long enough for Carroll to score from third. The Nationals pulled off the play to perfection, with Carroll breaking just as shortstop Jack Wilson threw the ball to first baseman Daryle Ward. Unable to throw back across his body, the left-handed Ward could only watch helplessly as Carroll scored the tying run.

“We had talked about it the other day: A left-handed first baseman is going to have to turn his feet, pivot and make the throw,” Carroll said. “So as soon as Wilson threw it to Ward, I took off. … You have to know the situation and who’s out there.”

Three innings later, Schneider came to the plate with runners on first and second, two out and tough left-handed reliever Mike Gonzalez on the mound. The Nationals catcher, who’s batting .391 in June, worked the count full, fouled off two sliders and poked a fastball into shallow center field for the game-winning hit.

“It was a good pitch,” Schneider said. “I just hit it hard enough.”

With his team now up a run, Robinson handed the ball to Cordero for the ninth. The 23-year-old closer had no trouble recording his first two outs, but when Cota got a hold of a 1-2 pitch and sent Church scrambling for the left-field fence, Cordero suddenly had a lump in his throat.

He and the rest of the Nationals breathed a sigh of relief once they realized Church had made a back-handed catch just as he slammed his left shoulder into the wall. They also were resting easier once they saw Church get to his feet and make the slow walk back in, his shoulder in pain but apparently not seriously injured.

All of Washington’s players were looking forward to a day off before returning to RFK tomorrow night to face the Toronto Blue Jays but none more than Church, who looked like he couldn’t wait to sleep in his own bed for the first time in 10 days.

“I’ll enjoy this off-day,” he said. “Maybe I’ll get a couple extra.”

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