- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 19, 2005

When Washington Nationals general manager Jim Bowden called up Jeffrey Hammonds from the minor leagues earlier this month, he repeatedly referred to the 34-year-old outfielder as someone who could give you “professional at-bats.”

It wasn’t always easy to take Bowden at his word, not when Hammonds followed up his two-hit debut on May 4 by going 0-for-13, leaving his future with the Nationals in doubt.

Bowden and manager Frank Robinson, though, never lost faith in Hammonds. And when his turn in the order came up last night with the bases loaded in the ninth inning of a scoreless game, neither Robinson nor Hammonds’ teammates had to think twice about letting him hit.

“He’s been through a lot, had a lot of clutch at-bats,” said Brad Wilkerson, who stood 90 feet away at third base representing the winning run. “It doesn’t faze him to be up there in that situation.”

No, it certainly doesn’t. Providing precisely the type of “professional at-bat” Washington had been counting on him for, Hammonds drilled Mike Adams’ 1-1 slider just inside the third-base bag to give the Nationals a thrilling 1-0 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers.

The first “walk-off win” of the season left the RFK Stadium crowd of 29,216 in a frenzy and moved the Nationals to within one game of first-place Atlanta in the National League East.

“It was a real morale booster for us to win that ballgame, and to do it without a couple of guys in there,” said Robinson, who was without injured cleanup hitter Jose Guillen (strained rib cage) for the second straight night. “Believe me, the team really, really, really needed that one, and we got it.”

A fabulous pitcher’s duel between Esteban Loaiza and Chris Capuano left the game scoreless entering the ninth. Washington reliever Gary Majewski (1-0) retired the side in the top of the inning, setting up some dramatics in the bottom half.

Brilliant through eight shutout innings, Capuano (3-3) finally faltered in the ninth. The left-hander plunked Wilkerson in the right arm to open the inning, then was pulled in favor of the right-handed Adams following Jamey Carroll’s sacrifice bunt.

Adams immediately surrendered an infield single to Vinny Castilla, then intentionally walked Nick Johnson to create a force out at any base but bring Hammonds to the plate with a chance to win the game.

Robinson could have chosen to pinch-hit Ryan Church or Carlos Baerga for Hammonds, but stuck with his slumping veteran, even though he was 0-for-2 this season against right-handed pitchers.

“I just liked the matchup,” Robinson said. “And I had confidence in him to do the job.”

Hammonds came through big-time, bringing Wilkerson home from third and setting off a celebration in the middle of the diamond.

“This was my time to help the team win,” said Hammonds, who wound up 2-for-4 on the night. “Now I feel like I’m a National. Maybe we can get some things rolling. Maybe I can help this team win on a regular basis.”

Not even Hammonds’ heroics could give Loaiza a win. There are two things you can be sure of when Loaiza pitches: He’s going to give you a quality start, and he’s not going to get much run support from his teammates.

Loaiza has been everything the Nationals could have asked for when they signed him to a $2.9 million deal in January. The veteran right-hander has given his new team both quantity (he has lasted at least six innings in eight of his nine starts) and quality (he has given up more than three runs just once).

He hasn’t, however, given the Nationals wins, his lone victory of the year having come May 2 in Los Angeles.

Not that it has been Loaiza’s fault. Washington has given him little run support through the season’s first 40 games — 13 runs during his 611/3 innings pitched. That equates to 1.91 runs per start, worst in the National League (according to Stats, Inc.).

Loaiza hasn’t let the lack of support get to him, though. Take last night’s game, when he tossed eight shutout innings, scattering six hits, walking none and striking out five, yet still got no decision.

“The guys here keep telling me, ‘We’re going to get you some runs, we’re going to get you some runs,’” Loaiza said. “It hasn’t happened yet, but we won today.”

The Nationals have been winning a lot lately, in a lot of different fashions. Some nights they do it with great pitching performances. Some nights they do it with great hitting performances from their star players.

And some nights they do it with a surprising hit from a veteran bench player who still has a few big moments left in him.

“Good teams do that,” Hammonds said, “and we’re close. It’s a feeling. You want to believe you can win every close game. The good teams learn how to win at this junction of the season. It’s a great feeling to be able to party on the field. You want to enjoy that feeling a lot more. If we can get addicted to winning now, the better off we’ll be.”

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