- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 10, 2006

In some ways, the Washington Nationals’ current upturn has been more impressive than their 10-game win streak of a year ago.

That team made a habit out of coming from behind late to win its games in dramatic fashion. This squad has been winning games in more conventional fashion, jumping out to early leads and then closing things out with little problem.

“You’re not depending on lightning striking [like you did in 2005],” manager Frank Robinson noted yesterday afternoon.

Well, lightning finally struck early this morning, and not only from the string of thunderstorms that hit RFK Stadium and delayed the start of the Nationals-Phillies game by an hour and 42 minutes.

Robert Fick scorched a one-out single to right in the 12th, narrowly scoring Marlon Byrd from second to give the Nationals a thrilling 9-8 victory.

Byrd had jump-started the game-winning rally, sending a leadoff double down the right-field line. Damian Jackson, who had just entered the previous inning, was asked to lay down a sacrifice bunt but fouled off three straight and was booed as he walked off the field.

Alfonso Soriano, struggling through a rare 0-for-6 night, was nonetheless intentionally walked, setting the stage for Fick, the 21st Washington player to be used in the game who sent a liner to right off reliever Clay Condrey and then celebrated as Byrd came around to score just in front of Bobby Abreu’s throw to the plate.

The dramatic victory came at the end of a long and wild night of baseball, one that saw the Nationals blow a 7-3 lead by giving up five runs in the top of the seventh, then rally to tie it in the bottom of the inning before winning it in the 12th.

Washington (29-33) earned its eighth win in nine days and caught the third-place Atlanta Braves for the first time since April 22. Even the second-place Phillies now stand only 3 1/2 games ahead of Robinson’s squad, which for the second straight season has chosen early June to go on a tear.

The Nationals had a golden opportunity to win it in the 10th, loading the bases with one out. But two of their best hitters — Jose Vidro and Nick Johnson — couldn’t come through in the clutch. Vidro grounded the first pitch he saw to second baseman Chase Utley, who fired home for the force out, and Johnson followed suit, tapping another grounder to second to end the inning and spoil three stellar innings of relief from rookie Bill Bray.

By that point, the start of this game seemed like ancient history. Washington got a sub-par start from Tony Armas Jr. (three runs in five labored innings following the long rain delay), but overcame that by pouncing on Phillies ace Brett Myers.

Myers hadn’t surrendered more than three earned runs in any previous outing this year, but Washington pushed six across against him, three in the second inning alone. Johnson led off with a double and Ryan Zimmerman followed with a liner to right. The Zimmerman drive should have been caught by Bobby Abreu, but the Phillies right fielder inexplicably took two steps in and couldn’t recover as the ball sailed over his head for a double.

Back-to-back singles by Marlon Anderson and Brian Schneider made it 2-2, and when third baseman David Bell booted Marlon Byrd’s grounder, the Nationals took their first lead of the game.

The onslaught continued in the third, with Myers getting into trouble by putting the first two men on without surrendering a hit, then allowing a pair of singles and a pair of sacrifice flies that made it 6-3.

One more run-scoring single from Zimmerman (3-for-5, two RBI, two runs) in the fourth extended the lead to 7-3 and appeared to wrap up another Nationals victory.

That was, until the Washington bullpen got involved.

When the top of the seventh began, most in the crowd of 24,751 had gone home. Jon Rauch stood on the mound ready for his second inning of relief.

When it ended, the Phillies had scored five runs to come all the way back, Robinson had used three different pitchers and what remained of the crowd booed the home team’s performance.

Rauch was pulled after allowing back-to-back singles to open the inning. With the left-handed hitting Utley coming to the plate, Robinson turned to his own veteran lefty: Mike Stanton, who last week struck out Utley, Bobby Abreu and Ryan Howard in succession to preserve a victory at Citizens Bank Park.

There were no such heroics this time, only a rocket of a three-run homer hit by Utley on Stanton’s very first pitch. Suddenly, that comfortable four-run lead had been trimmed to one, and the entire tone of the evening had been altered.

And it was about to get worse for the Nationals. Abreu singled up the middle, and that signaled the end for Stanton. In came Gary Majewski to face cleanup hitter Pat Burrell, and four pitches later, Burrell was circling the bases himself after tagging a high fastball off the left-field foul pole for a two-run homer.

The 7-3 lead had devolved into an 8-7 deficit, and if not for rookie Brendan Harris’ game-tying RBI single off Rheal Cormier in the bottom of the inning, the Nationals’ fate might have been sealed.

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