Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Of all the scenes that played out last night in the Washington Nationals’ 2-1 victory over the Atlanta Braves — a near no-hitter, a future Hall of Famer dislocating his finger, a dramatic strikeout to end the game from an unlikely closer — perhaps none was as unexpected or heartfelt as the chant that began circling RFK Stadium in the top of the ninth.

It began perhaps behind the third-base dugout, spread out from there and grew in stature until the crowd of 18,829 in attendance chanted:

“Bergmann! Bergmann!”

From the Nationals’ dugout, Jason Bergmann, a 25-year-old pitcher who said he had never heard his name called out like that before, sheepishly walked to the top step and doffed his cap as the crowd roared.

“I never thought I’d get a curtain call or anything,” he said later. “That’s fantastic. That’s just a good feeling. It warms me.”

It was well deserved. On an otherwise pedestrian Monday night in mid-May, Bergmann made an unlikely run at history and walked away with the most satisfying pitching performance of his young life. The right-hander carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning before surrendering a leadoff homer to Brian McCann and ultimately settling for a two-hit, 10-strikeout gem, not to mention his first major league win in nearly 20 months.

“It was an unbelievable feeling,” said Washington manager Manny Acta, whose club has won four in a row. “It got to a point where I really thought he was going to do it. … He was spectacular.”

And yet, for all Bergmann’s brilliance, this easily could have been remembered as one of the Nationals’ most devastating losses since they came to town three years ago if not for a truly unexpected escape act in the ninth by closer-for-a-night Jesus Colome.

With regular closer Chad Cordero easing his way back after leaving the club for a week because of his grandmother’s death and with top setup man Jon Rauch unavailable after pitching the last three days, Acta entrusted the game to Colome.

The 29-year-old reliever last recorded a save in 2004 with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and he nearly blew this opportunity. With two outs, he surrendered a single to Edgar Renteria to put the tying run on second and then fell behind 3-0 to slugger Andruw Jones as the ballpark fell silent.

Standing on the mound, Colome realized he needed to throw a fastball down the middle. So he did it once, and Jones took it for a strike. He did it again, and again Jones watched it go by. The count now full, Colome figured this was no time to change things up, so he fired another 95-mph fastball right down the heart of the plate. Jones took a mighty cut, but he missed, and Washington’s remarkable win was complete.

“I don’t know how he missed the pitch,” a smiling Colome said afterward. “I got lucky.”

There was no luck involved in Bergmann’s gem, not the way he was pitching.

The right-hander, who entered with a 3.07 ERA but zero victories to show for it because of a lack of run support, never gave Atlanta a chance. He struck out the first four batters he faced, five of the first six and already had established a new career high (nine) with one out in the sixth.

The only number that really mattered, though, was in the Braves’ hit column, where a zero remained through seven innings. In the dugout, the Nationals and Bergmann (1-3) tried to act as usual. But thoughts of the history that was taking place could not be avoided.

“I mean, how can it not?” Bergmann said. “You’re trying to do your best against a team, and you didn’t give up any hits. But you know the likelihood is that there’s not going to be a no-hitter.”

Sure enough, there wasn’t. Bergmann threw an 0-1 slider low and inside to McCann to lead off the eighth, and the Atlanta catcher belted it to right for a solo homer.

But the Nationals still were in position to win thanks to the two runs they scored off Braves ace John Smoltz. A resurgent Cristian Guzman tripled and scored in the first, and Austin Kearns doubled home Ryan Church in the seventh.

Kearns found himself in the center of a big play moments later, caught up between third and home on a failed suicide squeeze. Smoltz (5-2) ultimately tagged him out but in doing so dislocated his right pinky finger, an injury so painful it caused the career 198-game winner to slam his glove to the ground in agony.

“I was hoping he didn’t think there was anything dirty about it,” Kearns said. “I certainly didn’t think so.”

This night, though, belonged to Bergmann, a kid from central New Jersey and Rutgers who spent the last two years bouncing back and forth between the majors and Class AAA.

Today, he is the toughest starting pitcher to hit in the big leagues with an opponents’ batting average of .162. And he forever will have the indelible memory of a crowd chanting his name following his best performance.

“I hope they like me tomorrow,” he said.

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