- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 15, 2005

NEW YORK — If ever there was a moment that seemed likely to finish off the Washington Nationals’ teetering season, this was it.

Jose Guillen, their most combustible player, had just littered the playing field with equipment after getting ejected for arguing a called third strike. It was an ugly moment for Guillen and it threatened to overshadow anything his teammates were doing.

But as anyone who has followed the Nationals from Day One knows by now, this team seems to be at its best just when it looks ready to collapse.

So instead of using Guillen’s fifth-inning ejection at Shea Stadium as an excuse to roll over, Washington used it to turn things up a notch. Moments after Guillen was tossed, Preston Wilson and Vinny Castilla clubbed home runs on back-to-back pitches, turning a tie game into a 6-3 victory over the New York Mets and erasing the unsightliness that had just occurred.

“It didn’t really erase it,” manager Frank Robinson said. “But it made it a happier atmosphere in the dugout. It was important. One [home run] was a real positive. Two of them was outstanding and unexpected. Back-to-back? Woo-hoo!”

The Nationals (75-71) have reason to rejoice right now. Winners of two in a row to open this six-game road trip, they remain very much within striking distance in the National League wild-card race. With 16 games to play, they are now just three back of the Florida Marlins and Philadelphia Phillies.

“We’ve got to feel fortunate that we’re still in a position where we’ve got a chance,” Wilson said. “We’ve got to come out every day with that type of attitude, that type of fire that we want it.”

Guillen was plenty fired up last night, if not necessarily in a good way. Though he has been mouthing off in the clubhouse with more regularity lately, the outfielder has done a pretty good job of keeping his emotions in check on the field. But he let them get the best of him last night when plate umpire Bill Miller punched him out on a borderline called third strike on the inside corner with the game tied 3-3 in the fifth.

Guillen stormed back to the dugout, said a few curse words to Miller and was promptly ejected for — he said — the first time in his major league career.

“[Guillen] yelled and cursed at me out of the dugout,” Miller told a pool reporter. “I ejected him. That’s it.”

Well, actually, that wasn’t it. Guillen wasn’t done venting. From the dugout, he flung his helmet, four bats and a pair of batting gloves, then a protective shin guard. Each heave was met with a roar from the crowd of 24,049 and mostly indifference from those on the Nationals bench, who simply wanted to stay out of Guillen’s way.

“A lot of these umpires, they think the fans come to the stadium to see them,” Guillen said. “Sometimes, it’s not right, some of the stuff they do. Right now, it looks like they have full power in baseball. They can do whatever they want and they get away with it.”

Like Robinson, who went ballistic after getting tossed himself Tuesday night, Guillen should expect a phone call soon from MLB disciplinarian Bob Watson. A fine and suspension would appear likely.

“I’ll pay my fine,” Guillen said. “If it comes to a suspension, I’ll appeal. Hopefully, it doesn’t come up this year.”

The ejection might well have killed the Nationals’ momentum, but somehow they managed to maintain it, thanks to the back-to-back blasts from Wilson and Castilla later in the inning.

Wilson connected first, sending a 1-0 pitch from Kris Benson deep down the left-field line for his 23rd homer. Castilla then crushed Benson’s next pitch over the 410-foot sign in center field, the kind of shot rarely seen at RFK Stadium but a welcome sight for the Nationals at Shea.

“That was a real good pick-me-up,” starter Esteban Loaiza said. “We’re still battling hard, trying to climb up on the lead in the division or the wild card. We’re playing good ball right now. We’re not giving up.”

Loaiza (11-10) himself battled to earn this win. He surrendered a run in the first and two more in the fourth but shut the Mets down after that and departed following the seventh having struck out five and walked none.

Two of Robinson’s workhorses from the bullpen then finished things off. Gary Majewski came back after a two-inning stint the night before to retire the side in the eighth. Chad Cordero pitched the ninth for his 46th save, though it didn’t come without a moment of trepidation.

Cliff Floyd led off the inning by popping up just right of the pitching mound. Cordero, Castilla and Nick Johnson converged, then all watched as the ball fell to the ground. No matter, Cordero got David Wright to ground into a double play, then got Mike Piazza to fly out to end yet another strange Nationals ballgame.

“Come to the ballpark,” Robinson said. “Expect something to happen.”

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