- The Washington Times - Monday, August 13, 2007

PHOENIX — It would not be much of a stretch to suggest the Washington Nationals’ entire seven-game trip to San Francisco and Arizona hung in the balance during the final two innings yesterday afternoon at Chase Field.

An exhausting trip that began with Barry Bonds chasing down Hank Aaron and concluded with a difficult series against the hottest team in baseball could have ended on a decided down note for the Nationals had they wasted a gutsy rally from five runs down to tie the Diamondbacks before giving the lead back.

For a few frustrating minutes, that scenario was playing out. But thanks to another rally, this time coming in the ninth inning against an All-Star, Washington was able to leave town with a satisfying 7-6 victory that helped salvage the entire week.

“It would have been a long flight if we would have lost that game,” said Jon Rauch, who wound up earning his team-leading eighth win.

The reliever would know. After watching his teammates storm back from a 5-1 deficit to tie the game in the eighth, Rauch went out and put them back in a hole, giving up the go-ahead run in the bottom of the inning on a pair of singles and a sacrifice fly.

The Nationals, though, have been nothing if not resilient all season. So even when Arizona closer Jose Valverde, owner of 35 saves, emerged from the bullpen for the ninth, manager Manny Acta’s club didn’t stop believing.

“It’s been normal for us,” Acta said. “These guys don’t give up. They’re going to give me everything they’ve got every day, and sometimes we do these things.”

Washington’s rally was swift and furious. Jesus Flores led off the inning by lofting an 0-2 splitter from Valverde into the left-field bullpen for his third career home run, the latest in a growing list of clutch hits by the rookie catcher.

“He’s not intimidated. That’s a fact,” Acta said of his 22-year-old backup catcher. “He has played for us with a confidence that he belongs up here, regardless of where he has come from. That was a tremendous game that he played today.”

Flores’ homer tied the game 6-6. Robert Fick’s subsequent pinch-hit triple (his first in two years and only his fourth hit in his last 31 at-bats) set the stage for the Nationals to take the lead. And Felipe Lopez’s sacrifice fly to left put them ahead, bringing in Fick from third to cap a thoroughly impressive victory by a Washington club that had been winless in six previous games against the Diamondbacks this season.

“We basically stole a game,” left fielder Ryan Church said. “It shows we don’t give up till the last out.”

Only an hour or so earlier, the Nationals looked out of it, trailing 5-0 and unable to do anything against Arizona rookie right-hander Micah Owings, who retired the first 14 batters he faced.

It didn’t help matters that Washington starter Mike Bacsik turned in perhaps his worst performance of the season: a four-inning exercise in frustration that featured five runs, eight hits and two towering home runs surrendered.

But the Nationals‘ bullpen bailed out Bacsik with five innings of one-run ball. And that at least gave the offense a chance.

“For me to have to make those guys go five innings and to only give up one run, they did an outstanding job,” said Bacsik, who learned after the game he will be going to the bullpen. “All the credit goes to everybody except me today.”

Washington scored one run in the fifth to cut the lead to four, then added four more runs in the eighth to tie the game. Ryan Zimmerman’s RBI triple on a 425-foot drive off the overhang in right-center field made it 5-2. Austin Kearns followed with a run-scoring single up the middle. And Church delivered the big blow, a two-run homer to right off reliever Doug Slaten — Church’s first off a left-hander in 363 days.

“I finally was able to get in a good hitter’s count [3-1] and got a fastball and did something with it,” said Church, who was hitting .222 against lefties. “Coming up through the minor leagues, I’ve been able to hit lefties. It’s one of those things where [it helps] to get in there on an everyday basis and see them at-bat after at-bat.”

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