- The Washington Times - Monday, September 5, 2005

On a dry-erase board outside the front door of the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse yesterday, someone had scribbled a message of encouragement in blue marker.

“The fun has begun!”

It has been awhile since anyone reasonably could utter the words “Nationals” and “fun” in the same breath. With each passing day during their second-half slide, the Nationals’ mood seemed to deteriorate just a little more.

It’s funny, though, how winning breeds laughter and camaraderie. The same Washington clubhouse that felt like a morgue Friday night was full of life again yesterday afternoon following a 6-1 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies before a crowd of 32,251 at RFK Stadium.

“You can take us off the life support right now,” said manager Frank Robinson, whose team won back-to-back games for only the third time since the All-Star break. “You may have to put us back on it tomorrow.”

Robinson may still be banning pre- and postgame music in the clubhouse, but the silence couldn’t mask the good vibes that returned to RFK during a wild 24-hour stretch that propelled the Nationals back into the thick of the wild-card race.

Washington (71-66), which followed up Saturday night’s wild, 12-inning win with a thoroughly dominating performance, is back within two games of the wild-card-leading Phillies and 1 behind the second-place Houston Astros and Florida Marlins.

Those same Marlins come to town today to open a four-game series, the latest critical stretch for a Nationals ballclub that continues to teeter back and forth between contenders and also-rans.

“We haven’t played our best, but you know what, the rest of our division hasn’t run away with it,” catcher Brian Schneider said. “We know we can win it. We’re two games out now. That’s all we can ask for in the beginning of September, to be in reach of the playoffs.”

The Nationals put themselves back in the mix and won their second straight against Philadelphia thanks to their second-straight gutsy performance from a pitcher starting on three days’ rest.

John Patterson did it Saturday night, allowing one run over 72/3 innings before closer Chad Cordero blew it and sent the game into extra innings. Esteban Loaiza joined the act yesterday, coming back on short rest to pump out eight innings of one-run ball and earn his long-awaited 10th win of the year.

A model of consistency through much of this season, Loaiza (10-10) had stumbled in his last outing (giving up five runs in just 41/3 innings against the Atlanta Braves). But historically he has shown an uncanny ability to bounce back, even when he’s asked to come back on three days’ rest.

For his career, Loaiza is 9-2 with a 3.99 ERA in those situations, a testament to his work ethic.

“I’m a horse,” he said of pitching on short rest. “I’ve been around. I’ve been in the playoffs. I’ve pitched in tough situations. … It’s all in the heart. If you want it, you can do it.”

Loaiza proved that yesterday, throwing a season-high 128 pitches and matching a career high with 11 strikeouts (a record he set April27 against these same Phillies).

He gave up just four hits but pitched his way out of several jams. He finished off both the sixth and eighth innings with called third-strike fastballs, the final one clocked at an above-average 92 mph.

“I think he just went up a notch or two,” Robinson said. “He felt strong. He hadn’t been in that territory in awhile. That’s exactly what we needed today, and he gave it to us.”

Of course, Loaiza’s stellar effort would have gone for naught if not for the pair of three-run homers from the majors’ worst home-run-hitting club. Schneider took Phillies rookie and Annapolis native Gavin Floyd (1-2) deep in the second inning to put Washington ahead 3-0. Five innings later, Preston Wilson launched a three-run blast of his own off reliever Pedro Liriano, one that reached the upper deck in left field.

How momentous were Schneider and Wilson’s hits? Before yesterday, the Nationals had only five homers all year with at least two men on base.

Amazing how a couple of well-timed shots can reinvigorate a downtrodden club.

“I think everybody’s starting to come together and believe that the teams we’re playing aren’t better than us,” Wilson said. “That’s what it’s going to take: for everybody who’s in uniform to believe that the other teams aren’t better than us and that if we go out there and play well, we can win.”

Not that a feel-good, 24-hour stretch resolves all of a team’s problems. There is still some sense of discontent within the Nationals’ clubhouse, where a handful of players only two days ago questioned this club’s chances. Some of those same players don’t like the no-music, no-TV rules implemented by Robinson on Thursday night, though yesterday Jose Guillen emphatically insisted he is not one of them.

Back in the starting lineup after a two-game respite, Guillen said he supports Robinson’s authority and sat the previous two nights not because he was upset but because his ailing body needed the break.

“I’m telling you guys, I had nothing to do with that radio stuff,” the right fielder said. “I was really hurt the last two days — that’s why I didn’t play.”

Truth be told, Robinson enacted his new rules only because he wanted to make sure his team’s focus was solely on baseball, nothing else. Based on their play this weekend, it seems to have worked.

“I really like the approach and the attitude the last couple of days, the spirit of the ballclub,” Robinson said. “Hopefully, they understand what they have to do. They have to win series.”

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