- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Beset by injuries, hampered by a makeshift lineup and faced with a sudden charge from behind in the National League East, the Washington Nationals took the field at RFK Stadium last night and played just like they have since Opening Day: with spunk.

No Nick Johnson? No Ryan Church? No momentum?

No problem. The Nationals simply went out, got a superb pitching performance from Ryan Drese, just enough offense and eked out a 2-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates before 35,828.

With that unlikely combination, Washington (45-31) held onto its 21/2-game lead over the surging Atlanta Braves (winners of five straight) and once again displayed the kind of resiliency that has come to characterize this remarkable season.

“You don’t hear any complaining in the clubhouse,” manager Frank Robinson said. They’re ready to go out and play baseball if their name is in the lineup. It shows you they have a lot of belief in themselves. They have a lot of heart. They’re not going to sit around and cry over what’s not. They’re just going to do the best they can.”

If ever the Nationals had reason to feel sorry for themselves entering a game, this was it. Their cleanup hitter (Johnson) was out with a bruised heel. Their No.3 hitter (Jose Guillen) was in the lineup but clearly hindered by a bad ankle and shoulder. Their rookie of the year candidate (Church) was sidelined for the fourth straight game with a shoulder injury. Their starting first baseman (Wil Cordero) came in with an .038 average and seven total innings spent in the field this season.

But thanks to a gutsy, eight-inning performance by Drese, the Nationals managed to win at RFK for the 13th time in their last 14 games and boost their overall home record to 27-10. The recently acquired, inconsistent right-hander came through with his second brilliant outing in three starts, allowing just five hits while throwing 117 pitches on a brutally muggy night.

“It feels good,” he said. “We needed a win tonight, and we got it.”

With a depleted lineup behind him, Drese (2-1) did exactly what his manager needed: He kept his team in the ballgame and then turned things over to his unflappable closer. Chad Cordero came on in the ninth and recorded his 26th save and 23rd straight, tying Mel Rojas’ franchise record.

“Outstanding,” Robinson said of his starting pitcher. “That was one of the finer performances we’ve had this year.”

Drese shook off a rough first inning in which center fielder Brad Wilkerson misplayed Jason Bay’s deep fly ball into a double, then saw Daryle Ward drive him in with a bloop single to left.

The former Texas Rangers ace settled down after that, retiring 15 of the next 16 batters to erase memories of his poor outing in Pittsburgh last week. And when he did put himself in trouble in the seventh, he managed to get out of the jam with aplomb.

A double, a hit batter and a passed ball put runners on second and third with nobody out. But Drese got Jose Castillo to hit a sharp grounder right at Cristian Guzman, and the Nationals’ shortstop fired to the plate to nail Rob Mackowiak for the first out.

Drese then got Jack Wilson to flail at an 87 mph sinker for the second out. And when first baseman Wil Cordero made a nifty stop of Tike Redman’s grounder for the final out, Drese jogged back to the dugout to a loud ovation.

“He showed me he doesn’t panic,” Robinson said. “He doesn’t get all upset and everything. He just goes out there and does what he feels like he has to do. He’s a cool customer out there.”

The Nationals didn’t exactly give their starter a huge cushion to work with, but they managed just enough off Pirates right-hander Josh Fogg to take the lead by scoring two runs in the fourth without a hit.

Fogg (4-4) opened the inning by plunking Jose Guillen in the right hand, a pitch that drew a nasty glare and some words from Guillen (who terrorized the Pirates with four homers in three games last week at PNC Park). Perhaps unnerved by that, Fogg walked Vinny Castilla, then threw wide to third on Marlon Byrd’s sacrifice bunt attempt.

The ball glanced off Freddy Sanchez’s glove, rolled into shallow left and allowed the gimpy Guillen to come all the way around to score.

It was an impressive series of events for Guillen, who is still feeling the effects of a foul ball off his left foot Sunday in addition to a sore shoulder that nearly kept him out of this game altogether.

“I was not really thinking about playing at all today,” he said. “The trainers just gave me really strong medication, I started feeling better, and I just put myself in there.”

Said Robinson of his right fielder: “If he can walk, if he can throw, if he can run, if he can swing a bat, he’s going to go to the post.”

Moments after Guillen scored the tying run, Wil Cordero lofted a fly ball to right deep enough to score Castilla with the go-ahead run. It was Cordero’s first RBI of the season, and it helped temper some of the criticism that had begun to come his way.

“Of course it feels good. I helped the team win a ballgame,” Cordero said. “That’s what it’s all about.”

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