- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 30, 2007

PHILADELPHIA — After 161 games of ups and downs, bumps and bruises, highlights and lowlights, the Washington Nationals finish their 2007 season today with one more game of utter importance. Game 162 technically may not mean much to the Nationals, but it means everything to the Philadelphia Phillies, and so by extension it means the world to Washington as well.

The Nationals’ 4-2 victory yesterday at jam-packed Citizens Bank Park ensured the final day of the regular season will matter. The Phillies and Mets are once again tied atop the NL East, leaving the NL East title (and the wild card) up for grabs on the last Sunday in September.

And the feisty Nationals, who have won seven of 12 from New York and Philadelphia in the last two weeks to wrap up fourth place in the division, can’t wait to be a part of the madness that awaits this afternoon.

“This is great for the game of baseball,” manager Manny Acta said. “We put it in their hands now. It’s up to the Phillies and the Mets to decide their own future. So we feel good about that.”

Washington (73-88) finds itself in this situation because of the developments that played out yesterday:

• The Mets trounced the Florida Marlins 13-0, with right-hander John Maine giving up one hit in 72/3 innings to help New York snap a five-game losing streak that had the entire borough of Queens on edge.

• The San Diego Padres blew a ninth-inning lead in Milwaukee, failing to clinch the wild card and leaving themselves one game ahead of the Mets and Phillies.

• And, of course, the Nationals beat Philadelphia in impression fashion, getting six standout innings from rookie left-hander Matt Chico and taking advantage of some shoddy Phillies defense to win before a tense crowd of 44,532 that was hoping to see the home team clinch its first playoff berth in 14 seasons.

Instead, the Phillies (88-73) must now beat Washington today and hope the Mets lose or else subject themselves to either a one-game playoff for the NL East crown or a potentially three-way playoff for the wild card with San Diego thrown into the mix.

“We’ve still got a chance,” Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard said. “We still hold our destiny in our hands, and that’s all you can ask for right now.”

The Phillies could have made life much easier on themselves yesterday had they simply beaten the Nationals for their fourth straight win. But Chico denied them the opportunity to pop the champagne corks with one of his finest pitching performances of the season: six innings of one-run, four-hit ball against one of the most-feared lineups in baseball.

“What a performance by a kid that was pitching in Double-A last year,” Acta said. “He’s pitching in a playoff atmosphere-type of game, game of the week on TV, on the road against that offense. Just a tremendous performance.”

Chico (7-9) closed out his impressive rookie season with a flourish, carrying a shutout into the seventh before giving up a leadoff homer to Aaron Rowand that ended his afternoon. The 24-year-old held contained the Phillies with a well-located fastball and a biting slider.

“Once you get on the field, you kind of block it all out,” Chico said. “In between innings, I could kind of hear it. It’s a fun atmosphere to play in. They’re rowdy. But once you get on the mound, you block it out.”

It helped that Washington gave its young starter an early lead to make life easier. Ryan Zimmerman doubled in Ronnie Belliard in the first, and Felipe Lopez’s fourth-inning sacrifice fly made it 2-0. A couple of seventh-inning fielding blunders resulted in two more runs — Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz made an errant throw into center field, then Howard misplayed Dmitri Young’s ground ball.

Howard did atone for his defensive mistake with a solo homer off Jon Rauch in the eighth to cut the lead to 4-2, but Rauch got out of the inning without suffering any more damage, and Chad Cordero pitched a rare, 1-2-3 ninth.

Now it comes down to Game No. 162, with 26-year-old right-hander Jason Bergmann taking the ball for the Nationals against 44-year-old lefty Jamie Moyer for the Phillies.

“We’re going to go out there and play our hardest, for us, not to try to appease any other people or play spoiler,” Rauch said. “We’re going to play hard because that’s what we’re about.”

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