- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 27, 2007

ST. LOUIS — The scene bordered on the ludicrous.

The Washington Nationals and St. Louis Cardinals were trying to complete the top of the ninth inning in the middle of a downpour at Busch Stadium, hoping they could finish this game without stoppage.

But with the Nationals down to their final out but refusing to succumb, the umpiring crew had no choice but to call for the tarp and force both teams — and what was left of a crowd of 44,270 — to wait through a 1-hour, 43-minute rain delay before they could finally finish.

Turns out the delay only prolonged a Washington loss. Rookie Jesus Flores, representing the tying run, fought through an eight-pitch at-bat before popping out to end a bizarre 8-6 loss to the Cardinals.

“Nobody wants to go through this, but you’ve got to give it to our guys,” manager Manny Acta said. “We battled up until the last minute.”

What had looked like a St. Louis rout for hours morphed into a wild ballgame. The Nationals trailed 8-1 after four innings but clawed their way back to the verge of a dramatic comeback, only to watch as their last-gasp rally was stymied by the weather.

The threat of rain loomed all evening, but only a brief shower in the fifth inning fell … until the top of the ninth. That’s when things got interesting.

Leading 8-4, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa needed only three outs from reliever Kelvin Jimenez to secure the victory. So even as the rain began, chief Charlie Reliford’s umpiring crew let the game continue, figuring it could end before the field got too soaked.

Jimenez did his part, getting Cristian Guzman to ground out and then striking out Ryan Zimmerman on a check swing. Zimmerman, though, was upset about the call and Washington manager Manny Acta began yelling at Reliford from the dugout, questioning the plate umpire for trying to speed things along to end the game.

“I have no comment,” Acta said. “I’m not here to evaluate umpires.”

“Tough pitch,” Zimmerman said. “But there’s not really much you can say about it.”

Turns out the call could havehad an impact, because the Nationals’ bats suddenly came to life. Ryan Church doubled to right-center and Austin Kearns blooped a double down the right-field line as the Cardinals’ defense fought to see the ball through the rain.

The outcome of the game all of a sudden in question, La Russa strolled to the mound and summoned for closer Jason Isringhausen. It was perhaps a wise tactical move, but it allowed even more rain to fall on the exposed field. And when Dmitri Young greeted Isringhausen with an RBI single up the middle to make the score 8-6, the tying run was coming to the plate and the unthinkable was happening.

But the rain reached torrential status, and Reliford had no choice but to call for the grounds crew.

“It was getting bad,” Kearns said. “The footing was getting bad, and obviously the grip on the bat, and I’m sure for the pitcher it was getting tough, too.”

The players ran off the field and the crew tried to roll out the tarp but couldn’t drag it all the way across the waterlogged infield, leaving home plate and the third-base line exposed.

A lengthy delay became inevitable, and even though the rain eased up within 15 minutes or so, it took the crew nearly an hour to get the infield back into reasonable playing shape.

At 10:53 p.m. in St. Louis, one hour and 41 minutes after the game was halted with two outs in the ninth, the Cardinals retook the field, with Isringhausen back on the mound, pinch-runner Robert Fick on first base and Flores at the plate.

“It’s a little hard coming in from the bench after the rain,” Flores said. “But I was warming up in the cage just to be prepared for that AB. He’s their closer, he did a good job and I swing the bat really good, but I didn’t get the hit that I wanted.”

Prior to the wild finish, the key development as far as the Nationals were concerned was the poor outing by starter Levale Speigner, who was knocked around by the St. Louis lineup.

In 3 1/3 labored innings, Speigner served up eight runs on eight hits (all of them singles) and three walks. By night’s end, the status of his job sounded like it was in jeopardy.

“We have five days,” Acta said. “We’re going to have to evaluate the situation and see what the alternative will be.”

Of course, Speigner wasn’t helped much by his defense, particularly Young, who made two egregious mistakes at first base.

The biggest gaffe came in the fourth, when with the bases loaded and one out, Scott Spiezio lined a shot right at the base of Young’s feet. He caught the ball, in the air in his mind, but not before it hit the ground as far as umpire Tom Hallion was concerned. While Young stood in place, not sure what was going on, the Cardinals raced around the bases for a 5-1 lead.

“Whether it hit the dirt or not, that’s the play you want anyway,” Acta said. “You want the no-catch call because that’s the only chance you have to turn a double play there, stepping on the bag and throwing home. But obviously it didn’t happen that way.”

That was it for Speigner, who was removed and replaced by Billy Traber. The left-hander, though, immediately gave up a two-run double to Scott Rolen, and the rout was on. Or so it appeared.

Slowly but surely, the Nationals chipped away at the 8-1 lead. They managed to score two runs in the sixth on four singles but were denied a bigger rally by left fielder Chris Duncan, who made a spectacular catch of Felipe Lopez’s drive to the gap.

They scored an unearned run in the eighth to make it 8-4, then as the storm rolled in staged one last-ditch rally in a ninth inning that lasted far longer than anyone ever expected.

Want more Nats? Check out Nats Home Plate.

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