Sunday, June 18, 2006

It was over, really, because teams like the Washington Nationals just don’t come back from this kind of deficit against teams like the New York Yankees.

In the fifth inning at RFK Stadium yesterday, the Yankees scored seven runs to take a commanding seven-run lead, and many among the record crowd of 45,085 made their way to the exits.

And then Daryle Ward drove in a run, and Ryan Zimmerman added another and Brian Schneider brought two more home, and now it was a three-run game. And then Ward sent a ball flying into the upper deck and Robert Fick poked a ball into center field to make it a one-run margin in the seventh.

And then Alfonso Soriano took matters into his own hands and walked, stole two bases and scored on Jorge Posada’s errant throw to tie the game in the eighth.

And then Jose Guillen drilled a shot to right-center off Mariano Rivera, and the 240-pound Ward barreled around third to score the go-ahead run and propel the Nationals to an 11-9 victory .

“I’ll tell you what,” Nationals manager Frank Robinson said after the 3-hour, 51-minute marathon. “If these kind of wins can’t get you up, nothing can.”

It was as dramatic a win as the Nationals have had since relocating to the District a year ago, and it couldn’t have come at a better time for a team reeling from five straight losses.

There was no dismay in the Washington clubhouse after the franchise’s biggest comeback in three years, only a buoyant group of ballplayers who tried to express just how significant this win was.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s against the Yankees or the Marlins or anybody,” Schneider said. “To come back and win it, especially against a predominant closer like that, makes us feel very, very good.”

It took just about every ounce of strength the Nationals had in them to pull this one off. When New York’s Johnny Damon clubbed a fifth-inning grand slam off reliever Saul Rivera to put his team ahead 9-2, this one might as well have been over. The sizeable Yankees portion of the sellout crowd (largest for a baseball game at RFK since Opening Day 1969) was loving every minute of it, while the hometown fans among the bunch were looking for a place to hide.

But in the Washington dugout, players said, hope was not lost.

“We could have easily put our heads down and maybe just given up or something,” closer Chad Cordero said. “But we didn’t.”

The Nationals knew they couldn’t get all seven runs back at once, but they knew they could chip away at the lead and give themselves a chance. So the key to the whole comeback might have been the four runs they scored in the fifth, making up for the ugly top half of the inning.

“Yeah, especially when they put a seven up,” said Zimmerman, whose RBI double brought home one of the runs. “I mean, if you put nothing up there, it’s going to be tough to come back in that game.”

After six innings, the Nationals still trailed 9-6. But Ward, who entered in the third inning after first baseman Nick Johnson strained his back, re-ignited the bench and the ballpark by tattooing a 2-2 pitch from reliever T.J. Beam into Section 469 down the right-field line.

Guillen followed with a double, and after two outs and two pitching changes, Fick came off the bench to bloop an RBI single to center and make it 9-8.

It was an impressive rally, but it still figured to end there. Because Washington was going to have to try to complete the comeback by scoring off Rivera, arguably the greatest closer in the history of the game.

That’s when Soriano decided to take over and score that run. The former Yankees second baseman stood on first base as Rivera trotted in from the bullpen to thunderous applause from the visiting fans. Within moments, he had come all the way around to score before Rivera had a chance to retire his first batter.

On Rivera’s 1-0 pitch to Ward, Soriano stole second. On his 2-2 offering, the Nationals catalyst took off for third, then came home when Posada’s throw sailed into left field.

“When I got on base, I said, ‘I’ve got a chance to steal some bases,’” Soriano said. “They gave me the opportunity, and I took it.”

With the game now tied 9-9, the Nationals had no intention of letting up. Ward drew a walk, and Guillen (whose blistered hands could barely hold onto the handle of his bat) tagged Rivera’s 3-2 pitch into right-center. Ward was running on the pitch, but as he approached third, the husky utilityman never expected to see coach Tony Beasley waving him around.

Said Ward: “I was looking at Beasley like he was crazy.”

Ward chugged down the line, intent on running over Posada if need be. It wasn’t necessary, because the Yankees’ relay throw was late and Ward was able to score the go-ahead run standing up.

“I had no intention of sliding,” he said. “Nothing personal, but for a team trying to beat the Yankees, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”

Standing on third following his timely triple, Guillen pointed toward Ward in acknowledgment of his feat. Seconds later, he waltzed home with an insurance run after Zimmerman sent Rivera’s sinker back through the box and past a drawn-in infield, the final cap to a wild and satisfying Nationals win.

“We’ve been losing all those games in a row, and it’s tough,” Guillen said. “Everybody knows the type of team that we have. That really meant a lot to us.”

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To

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