- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 25, 2006

The opposing pitcher was on cruise-control, dominating to the point where Washington Nationals manager Frank Robinson called him “almost unhittable.”

Meanwhile, the home team looked lethargic, unable to do anything at the plate while watching players suffer from some of the strangest injuries imaginable.

So perhaps the only way the Nationals could beat the Houston Astros 5-1 last night was on one of the strangest plays the 24,194 in attendance at RFK Stadium likely will ever see: a balk with the tying runner on third base.

That rare event, courtesy of Houston ace Roy Oswalt, proved the turning point of the Nationals’ fourth victory in five games. When Oswalt inexplicably stopped his pitching motion in mid-act, with two outs, an 0-2 count on Alfonso Soriano and Damian Jackson dancing off third, the entire complexion of the game changed.

Even if the umpiring crew nearly missed it.

Though Oswalt’s illegal move was obvious to just about everyone in the stadium, plate umpire Larry Young proceeded as though nothing had happened.

In the Nationals dugout, Robinson knew what he just saw: Oswalt started his windup, stepping back with his left leg, then stepped toward third without ever throwing the ball.

“I was waiting for the umpires to call it,” Robinson said. “I thought one of them would call it. When they didn’t, it was, ‘Wait a minute, let me get out here.’”

So Robinson bounded up the dugout steps and confronted Young, insisting Oswalt’s actions constituted a balk. Young called over the rest of his crew to confer, then finally signaled for Jackson to advance home with the tying run. The ballpark erupted, and despite Astros manager Phil Garner’s pleas, Young stuck by his call. Instead of trailing 1-0, the Nationals tied the game.

Young said he initially thought Oswalt’s foot wasn’t on the pitching rubber. But he admitted he made a mistake after seeing a video replay.

“In retrospect … I should have avoided that situation altogether by calling it immediately,” Young said. “Because it was so obvious when you saw it on replay.”

Oswalt didn’t put up a fight. There was no question in his mind he was to blame. And the significance of his gaffe was all too clear.

“I knew I did it,” he said. “I’ve never lost a game because of balking, but we pretty much lost the game right there. We had complete control. … We should have won that game 1-0.”

The Astros didn’t, of course. And for that, the Nationals can thank rookie Mike O’Connor, who matched his more-accomplished counterpart pitch-for-pitch, and a couple of veteran bench players who jump-started a dramatic, four-run rally in the eighth.

Washington overcame the losses of both right fielder Jose Guillen and catcher Wiki Gonzalez to bizarre injuries. Guillen left in the third inning with a corneal abrasion of his left eye, a byproduct of him trying to scratch his eye earlier in the afternoon with a batting glove. Gonzalez, meanwhile, got conked in the head by Preston Wilson’s backswing in the second inning and had to leave the game two innings later with a mild concussion and strained neck.

Through it all, O’Connor remained poised. He wasn’t quite as polished as Oswalt, but he was just as effective. Aside from a high changeup in the second inning that Morgan Ensberg crushed to left for a solo homer, O’Connor was outstanding, allowing only three hits in six innings.

Sitting on 80 pitches, he easily could have kept going, but with Jackson on second and one out in the sixth, the rookie left-hander agreed with his manager’s decision to pinch-hit.

“Frank told me they probably weren’t going to get many chances off [Oswalt] tonight,” O’Connor said. “It was already the bottom of the sixth inning, so I understand it: Try to get that run right there.”

Little did the Nationals know they’d get that run on a balk, but they gladly accepted Oswalt’s gift.

More importantly, by tying the game, Washington managed to knock the ace right-hander out and leave the game in the hands of Houston’s talented-but-struggling bullpen.

“That doesn’t mean you’re going to do anything, but it certainly gives you a lift,” Robinson said. “Boy, were we glad to see [Oswalt] go.”

The Nationals pounced on relievers Dan Wheeler (0-3) and Brad Lidge in the eighth. Ryan Zimmerman led off with a triple off Wheeler, then Matt LeCroy drew a one-out walk, setting the stage for Daryle Ward to be the hero. The veteran pinch-hitter roped Lidge’s 3-2 slider just past first baseman Lance Berkman, scoring Zimmerman and giving the Nationals a 2-1 lead.

“I thought it was either going to be a play at the plate or a double play,” Ward said. “Thank God it worked out.”

Ward’s clutch hit would have been enough to ensure the victory, but Washington made sure there would be no drama in the ninth, adding three more runs off Lidge. LeCroy scored on a wild pitch, Ward scored on Soriano’s double to left-center, and Soriano scored on Royce Clayton’s single to left.

Not a bad way to cap a wild victory on a strange night at the ballpark.

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To submit a question, go to the https://www.washingtontimes.com/sports>Sports Page


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