- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 30, 2005

Want to test a ballclub’s true mettle? Force it to sit through a 2-hour, 8-minute rain delay, then return to a nearly empty stadium and a sopping wet field and still try to pull off its usual nightly magic.

The Washington Nationals weren’t even fazed by that set of circumstances last night. Somehow, some way they pulled off a 3-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates before a waterlogged crowd of 31,213 at RFK Stadium that had nearly emptied entirely by the time Chad Cordero wrapped up his 27th save after midnight.

Jose Guillen’s double down the third-base line in the bottom of the eighth scored Carlos Baerga to give the Nationals (46-31) their 20th one-run victory of the season.

Guillen’s hit off Pirates reliever Salomon Torres (2-3) skidded off third baseman Rob Mackowiak’s right leg and into foul territory, giving the slow-footed Baerga ample time to come around from second with the winning run.

That made a winner out of Luis Ayala (7-4) and gave Cordero a chance at his 24th straight converted save. If he finishes off one more game this afternoon, he’ll tie the major-league record of 15 saves in a single month.

A game that began under hot and muggy conditions turned wet and windy when a massive thunderstorm swept through town. It was a minor miracle that play resumed shortly after 10p.m., given the swamp that formed on an infield that was not fully covered.

The teams, though, did return eventually and treated the handful of fans who stuck around to an entertaining ballgame that featured plenty of golden scoring opportunities but few clutch hits.

The Pirates blew their best opportunity in the eighth, when Mackowiak was gunned down at the plate by left fielder Marlon Byrd and Jack Wilson grounded into an inning-ending force out.

The rain came in the top of the third inning, with the Nationals up 1-0 and starter John Patterson cruising along. By the time Mackowiak came to the plate with two outs and a runner on third, it had turned into a full-fledged downpour.

Crew chief Larry Poncino, the third-base umpire, allowed play to continue to see if the Nationals could get out of the inning, but with a 2-2 count on Mackowiak, Poncino called for the grounds crew.

Try as they might to haul the massive tarp over a soaking-wet infield, the groundskeepers came up about 10 feet short, leaving most of the third-base dirt line exposed. That, along with the warning track, quickly turned into a soupy mess, leaving the field in bad shape.

The scene evoked memories of an April30 fiasco at RFK, when officials were forced to call a game against the New York Mets in the eighth inning after it took the crew 31 minutes to completely cover the infield.

As was the case that night, fingers could have been pointed both at the grounds crew (for its inability to move the tarp) and the umpiring crew (for allowing the game to continue briefly during the height of the storm).

But to their credit, the grounds crew did an impressive job getting the field back into a playable form following the delay. It took nearly an hour of work and more than a dozen bags of drying compound, but the infield looked good as new when the Nationals re-took their positions shortly after 10p.m. to a standing ovation from the few thousand remaining fans.

Those cheers quickly were replaced by shrieks — Patterson’s first pitch to Mackowiak was sent careening into the right-field mezzanine for a two-run homer. As Mackowiak rounded the bases, having just given the Pirates a 2-1 lead, the obvious question was whether Patterson should have returned after a two-hour delay and 60 pitches.

Pittsburgh manager Lloyd McClendon didn’t bring back his starter, Dave Williams, instead handing the ball to Ryan Vogelsong. Not that the long reliever was able to hold onto the Pirates’ lead.

He surrendered a one-out triple to Cristian Guzman in the fourth, then loaded the bases by walking Brad Wilkerson and plunking Junior Spivey. He nearly hit Guillen on a 2-2 fastball that whizzed past the Nationals slugger’s throat, then threw his 3-2 pitch well out of the strike zone to walk in the tying run. It was Guillen’s 500th career RBI.

Patterson, meanwhile, rebounded from the Mackowiak homer and made it through the fifth inning without allowing another run before departing and turning things over to his bullpen.

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