- The Washington Times - Friday, September 16, 2005

NEW YORK — There was a feeling inside the Washington Nationals clubhouse last evening that had all but faded away during the course of the last two months: The feeling of a team that believes it can do no wrong.

It’s the way the Nationals routinely felt during their magical first-half run to the top of the National League East. But it had been far too long since anyone had that same sense about this team during its second-half slide.

Finally yesterday, in the wake of a wild, 6-5, 10-inning win over the New York Mets, it was back. And boy did it feel good to all those inside the cramped visitors’ clubhouse at Shea Stadium.

“This might be the one that we need to put us over the top before this thing is over,” manager Frank Robinson said after his club rallied to tie the game in the ninth before winning it in the 10th.

This dramatic victory, capping a three-game sweep of the Mets, sent the Nationals (76-71) on their cross-country flight to San Diego knowing they were only 21/2 games back in the NL wild-card race.

The team that everyone has tried to write off at some point just doesn’t seem to know how to die.

And so the Nationals celebrated the latest improbable twist to their season. There still wasn’t any music in the clubhouse, per Robinson’s strict rules, but there was laughter — mostly at the rookies who were forced to leave the ballpark in women’s clothing — and there was genuine kinship among players who at times lately haven’t seemed to like each other much.

“It’s a long season,” outfielder Brad Wilkerson said. “You have to be able to have some fun here and stay loose and know that tomorrow we need to step it up again.”

That long flight to the West Coast was a lot more enjoyable after a dramatic win like this one. Washington was on the verge of a frustrating loss, having fallen behind 5-4 on Cliff Floyd’s fifth-inning grand slam off Livan Hernandez, who went six innings despite feeling ill.

“I don’t feel too good,” Hernandez said. “My whole body was hot and sweaty in the bullpen [before the game]. … But I pitch like that.”

The Nationals made sure their gutsy right-hander wasn’t saddled with a loss. They came to the plate in the ninth needing to push one run across against Mets closer Braden Looper, and they found a way to do it, with Robinson using five guys off his expanded bench in that inning alone.

It began with a line-drive single to right by Ryan Zimmerman, the 20-year-old three months removed from college, who advanced to second when right fielder Gerald Williams mishandled a bad hop.

“That’s what I’m here for: To come off the bench and try to get something started,” said Zimmerman, now batting .375 (6-for-16) as a major leaguer. “I’m just trying to get on base any way I can.”

Kenny Kelly came off the bench to pinch-run for Zimmerman and took third on Cristian Guzman’s groundout. Jose Guillen, out of the lineup because of a bad hamstring, then pinch-hit and was struck on the left elbow, putting runners on the corners.

Up came Wilkerson with a chance to tie the game. The versatile leadoff man hasn’t always come through in these situations, but he fought off pitch after pitch from Looper, fouling off six before sending a sharp grounder under the glove of drawn-in second baseman Kaz Matsui.

“I tried to put the ball on the ground somewhere,” said Wilkerson, who wasn’t credited with a hit but did get an RBI. “I tried to get on top of the ball, and I did that.”

With the game now tied at 5-5, Robinson brought rookie reliever Jason Bergmann (2-0) in to pitch the ninth, with recently recalled Keith Osik behind the plate for the first time. The duo got out of the inning unscathed, striking out both Floyd and David Wright looking.

So it went to the 10th, where Nick Johnson immediately drew a walk from Roberto Hernandez (6-6), then took third on Preston Wilson’s single to right. Wilson nearly blew it, though, when he rounded first too far and was gunned down. In the dugout, Robinson gave his center fielder a tongue-lashing.

“There are certain things you expect from a player,” the manager said. “He didn’t do that today.”

When Ryan Church stranded Johnson at third with a sharply hit grounder, it looked like Wilson’s gaffe would be the Nationals’ undoing. But Vinny Castilla followed with a line-drive single to right, scoring Johnson and bringing the Washington dugout back to life.

It was the kind of clutch, opposite-field hit the Nationals have been looking for from Castilla all season. They haven’t gotten many from the ailing third baseman, but with his bum right knee beginning to heal, he has begun to produce. During his last 25 games, he is hitting .300 (24-for-80).

“Finally, I started feeling a little bit better this month, and I’ve been able to drive the ball harder,” he said.

Up 6-5, Robinson needed only to hand the ball to closer Chad Cordero to wrap things up. Just one problem: Cordero was unavailable, having pitched in all of the previous three games and showing signs of fatigue.

So Robinson entrusted the game to 25-year-old reliever Gary Majewski, who had pitched four innings the last three games himself but informed his manager before the game that he was good for one inning if needed.

Despite giving up a leadoff infield single to Williams when Guzman couldn’t get the ball out of his glove, Majewski retired the next three hitters — one of them courtesy a fine diving stop by Johnson at first base — and earned his second career save. (The other one, on Oct. 2, 2004, was also at Shea Stadium and closed out the final win in Montreal Expos history.)

“I never want a day off,” said Majewski, adding: “I love it. I love pitching in pressure.”

With the Nationals right back in the thick of the playoff chase, it would appear there are plenty more pressure situations yet to come.

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