- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 26, 2007

NEW YORK — It didn’t seem like much at first, just an annoying little delay to an inevitable Washington Nationals victory.

But then the hits kept on coming, the Nationals’ pitching staff couldn’t find the plate and what was left of a Shea Stadium crowd of 49,244 was rocking and rolling as the New York Mets tried to mount an improbable ninth-inning rally.

That rally ultimately fell one hit short of completion, and the Nationals — despite giving up six runs in the ninth — escaped the ballpark with a 10-9 win to earn their 71st victory of the season and match last year’s total.

“We matched a team with [Alfonso] Soriano and Livan Hernandez and [Jose] Guillen and [Jose] Vidro, all quality players,” pitcher Jason Bergmann said. “People underestimated us, and we were able to go out there as a team, and each one of us were able to perform up to our abilities to get to 71 wins so far.”

Even if win No. 71 required some tense final moments before it was secured.

“It’s OK,” manager Manny Acta said when asked how his heart felt after his team turned a comfortable 10-3 lead into nearly a 3-hour, 40-minute nightmare.

Maybe so, but few would forgive Acta if he experienced a few palpitations as the ninth inning played out.

With his team ahead by seven runs and clearly en route to a second-straight blowout win over the division-leading Mets, Acta sat back in the dugout and waited for reliever Jesus Colome to record the evening’s final three outs.

Colome, though, ran into immediate trouble, surrendering a leadoff single before striking out a batter, walking another and then serving up a three-run homer to Jose Reyes that re-energized the few remaining Mets fans in the ballpark.

A subsequent single by Luis Castillo brought the heart of the New York lineup to the plate and brought Acta out of the dugout to signal for closer Chad Cordero.

“I know this club,” said Acta, who served on the Mets’ coaching staff the last two seasons. “This is what they’re capable of. They can put up seven, eight runs on the board in a heartbeat, and it was the heart of their order. That’s why we decided to bring our closer in up four runs because of who was coming up. And still, they hit him around, too.”

Yes, they did. Cordero suffered a meltdown of his own. He faced three batters, retiring none. He bounced several pitches in front of the plate. And when hot-hitting Moises Alou smoked a three-run double to right, stunningly cutting the lead to 10-9, Acta had no choice but to call for another reliever.

For only the second time this season, Cordero was removed in the ninth inning with the Nationals still winning, replaced by setup man Jon Rauch, who was thrust into a closing situation he rarely experiences.

“The job’s still the same,” Rauch said. “It’s to get three outs or six outs or however many outs. So mentally, I try to approach it that way and just stay grounded.”

With the tying run on second and still only one out, Rauch went to work. He struck out Carlos Delgado, then watched as pinch-runner Endy Chavez inexplicably stole third base. With the tying run now 90 feet away, the Nationals stood in the field trying desperately to hang on.

“Let’s just get an out,” right fielder Austin Kearns said of his mind-set at that moment. “I don’t care how it happens. If somebody falls down and we can tag them or something, let’s just get an out and get out of here.”

Somehow, they got it. Rauch got Lo Duca to hit a lazy fly ball to right for the final out, and Washington’s players gathered in the middle of the diamond for high-fives.

“I wouldn’t say we were worried,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “We had the lead. We have a really good bullpen, and our last two guys are very good. I’ll take Chief and Rauch with four runs any day of the week.”

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