- The Washington Times - Monday, July 17, 2006

PITTSBURGH — For three days, the Washington Nationals had searched for that one big, clutch hit. And for three days, they hadn’t got it.

So when Nick Johnson stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and one out in the 11th inning yesterday at PNC Park, the Nationals’ cleanup hitter had just one thing in his mind.

“I was just trying to get that runner from third,” he said. “I haven’t been doing that a lot lately.”

None of the Nationals players had during a painful five-game losing streak sandwiched around the All-Star break. But Johnson battled his way through a 10-pitch at-bat against veteran reliever Roberto Hernandez, fouling off four straight pitches with a full count, and finally laced a two-run double to left field, giving the Nationals an 8-4 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates.

“That was huge,” manager Frank Robinson said. “That’s what we’ve been missing.”

The Nationals squandered opportunity after opportunity during the weekend series, leaving 12 runners on base in Friday night’s loss, a season-high 14 in Saturday night’s loss and 12 more in yesterday’s victory.

And the Nationals’ makeshift pitching staff failed to protect the few leads it had. That was the case again yesterday, when Washington briefly blew what looked like a win.

The Nationals had gotten six quality innings from starter Livan Hernandez, who overcame a back and ankle injury in the bullpen and a three-run first to post only the second six-inning outing by a Washington pitcher in 10 games.

“I’ve got a responsibility,” Hernandez said. “I’ve got to be there for my team. I’ve got to be there on the mound. I’m the first pitcher on this team.”

Still, the Nationals trailed 3-1 when Robinson sent up Alex Escobar to pinch-hit for Hernandez in the seventh. Despite a torrid, 9-for-17 stretch since rejoining the club and a pinch-hit single the night before, Escobar was squeezed out of a starting outfield job after the trade for Austin Kearns.

But Escobar hit a first-pitch fastball from Paul Maholm into the left-field bleachers for a two-run homer to tie the game.

“I’m going to try to get him in there as soon as I can as kind of a reward for him,” Robinson said. “He’s gotten two big hits there in back-to-back games. Today’s was huge. It’d be nice to get him four at-bats.”

In the eighth, catcher Robert Fick sent a broken-bat single into center, scoring Johnson with the go-ahead run.

But that new-look bullpen couldn’t get the ball to closer Chad Cordero without blowing the one-run lead. Newcomer Kevin Gryboski hit Jason Bay, then surrendered back-to-back singles to Craig Wilson and Jose Castillo to tie the game 4-4.

“Today was a mental test,” Fick said. “It was tough. They came back and we came back, they came back, we went ahead, they came back.”

Ultimately, Washington struck last. A pair of scoreless innings from Cordero and Mike Stanton helped send the game into the 11th, when pinch-hitter Marlon Anderson raked a leadoff double to deep right-center.

That set the stage for Alfonso Soriano, who already had hit his 29th homer of the season and added two hits earlier in the game, to be the hero. Soriano, though, had something else in mind: a surprise sacrifice bunt attempt that caught Hernandez so off-guard, he threw wildly to first for an error.

“I don’t like to just think about me,” said Soriano, who had bunted one other time this year. “I try to be like a teammate and play the game like I help the team to win.”

In the dugout, Robinson was both elated and upset to see Soriano bunt on his own.

“I haven’t recovered from the shock yet,” he said. “He wasn’t wrong, but it’s just the idea that we haven’t been doing it. I wanted him to take a shot there.”

After Felipe Lopez struck out and Soriano stole second, Pirates manager Jim Tracy elected to walk Jose Vidro intentionally and face Johnson with the bases loaded.

“That was a big mistake,” Guillen said. “Nick, you know he doesn’t swing at any bad pitches, so you know he was going to put the ball in play, no matter what.”

Johnson did. After working the count full and fouling off four straight fastballs from Hernandez, he poked pitch No. 10 into the left-field corner for a two-run double. Three batters later, Guillen (who has vowed to turn his season around after a brutal first half) delivered his own two-run double to blow the game open.

“It’s great to be on a plane after you win a ballgame,” Robinson said. “You have a good night. You sleep better. The food’s better. Everything’s better. This was a good win for us.”

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To submit a question, go to the Sports Page.

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