Thursday, September 29, 2005

MIAMI — They will remember the magical first half, and they will remember the calamitous second half.

And if the Washington Nationals have anything to say about it, they will remember the club — despite any number of reasons to quit down the stretch — kept fighting to the end.

With an 11-7 victory over the Florida Marlins last night, the Nationals capped a three-game sweep of their reeling division rivals, assured themselves of at least a .500 record and managed to catapult themselves into sole possession of third place in the National League East for the first time since Aug. 18.

Those may all seem like consolation prizes for a team that only a week ago still harbored visions of a wild-card berth. But to this club, they count for something.

“They have a lot of heart and a lot of pride,” manager Frank Robinson said. “They didn’t want to let all of the good things they’ve done this year slip away.”

Back in spring training, the consensus on the Nationals was they would be lucky to win 81 games. Well, with three games to go — all this weekend at RFK Stadium against the contending Philadelphia Phillies — their record stands at 81-78.

One more victory and the Washington franchise will have its third winning record in four years, all under the stewardship of Major League Baseball. Imagine what these guys think is possible once they have an actual owner and a competitive payroll.

“I don’t think we’re satisfied as a team being .500,” left fielder Brad Wilkerson said. “We wanted more, and we came up short. But hopefully sweeping this series and playing well the next series, we’ll finish up on a good note.”

There were other reasons for the Nationals to smile last night. They wound up with a 40-41 road record after losing at least 50 games away from home the last two seasons.

They also capped their most-productive series of the year, scoring 11 runs on back-to-back nights to give them a season-high 28 over the last three games. And their 40 combined hits represented the high-water mark of the year.

“I think everyone wanted to come in and show we haven’t shut it down,” said center fielder Preston Wilson, who went 3-for-5 with five RBI. “Show that guys are going to go out there and play hard.”

The beneficiary was right-hander Esteban Loaiza, who earned the victory in his final start of the season. Loaiza (12-10) wasn’t his sharpest — he allowed runs in the first, third, fourth and sixth innings — but he still managed to end his season on a high note.

His 12-win total wound up second-best on Washington’s pitching staff behind Livan Hernandez (15-9). Toss in his 3.77 ERA and Loaiza put together a more-than-respectable season, one that could earn him a nice raise over the winter.

There’s a $2.9 million mutual option on Loaiza’s contract, but he’s expected to test the market and see whether he can get a multiyear deal.

“I’d love to be back,” he said. “I can’t say nothing negative against this ballclub, this family that I had this year.”

If the Nationals can promise Loaiza they will hit this well throughout 2006, his prospects of re-signing may increase dramatically. One night after pounding out 11 runs on 15 hits, they again took the Marlins to task.

Nick Johnson belted a two-run homer in the third, his 15th of the season, preceding bigger things to come. The Nationals scored seven runs in the fourth, in which they sent 11 men to the plate, got a three-run homer from Wilson, a two-run single from Johnson and two hits from Ryan Zimmerman (celebrating his 21st birthday).

And they weren’t done. Following a 14-minute rain delay in the top of the sixth, Johnson launched a ball to the base of the 434-foot mark in left-center. It would have been a home run in any other park — yes, even RFK Stadium. Here, it turned into a ground-rule double. Never fear, though, because Wilson picked up the scraps by following Johnson with a two-run double to cap an impressive night that left him an RBI shy of his stated season goal of 90.

“That would be nice,” the free-agent-to-be said. “I want to get as many as I can get.”

Sparks flew in the ninth inning, when several Nationals took exception to an up-and-in fastball from Marlins reliever Ron Villone to Wilkerson. From the dugout, some players started jawing at Villone, who fired back once the inning was over.

“That’s two nights in a row the first pitch has been thrown pretty high and tight on left-handed hitters,” Wilkerson said. “Maybe he had some intent, maybe he didn’t.”

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