- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Labor Day has come and gone, the children have gone back to school and sports fans around Washington apparently have begun turning their attention to the Redskins, all of which takes the spotlight off a Nationals squad that is playing out the string at RFK Stadium.

But fans shouldn’t divert their eyes completely from the little ballclub that could on East Capitol Street. As far as the Nationals are concerned, the season is far from over.

Manager Manny Acta‘s club still feels like it has plenty to play for before packing up for the winter, and the manner in which it celebrated in the middle of the diamond last night following a thrilling 4-3 victory over the Florida Marlins underscored that fact.

When Jesus Flores doubled down the left-field line with two outs in the ninth, bringing home the tying and winning runs, the rookie catcher was mobbed by his teammates. Flores’ latest clutch hit capped a wild comeback off Marlins closer Kevin Gregg and gave Washington its fourth straight win and a two-game lead over its last-place division rivals.

“It was an amazing moment,” the 22-year-old Flores said of his first career “walk-off” hit.

But how many people saw it live? Official attendance at RFK last night was 15,611, the smallest crowd to watch baseball since it returned to the District three seasons ago. Actual attendance was less than that, and by the time Flores came to the plate in the ninth with the home team trailing 3-2, plenty of fans had long since left the building.

April and September are historically the toughest months to draw fans, something the Nationals have experienced over the last three years. Their previous low at RFK of 16,017 came April 5 against the Arizona Diamondbacks in their fourth game of the season.

Still, a club that has averaged more than 24,000 fans a game this year and is banking on a huge influx in its new ballpark next year couldn’t have been terribly pleased with all the empty seats on display last night.

Not that the players are letting the lack of attention have an adverse effect on them. With their second “walk-off” win in three days, the Nationals (62-77) added another memorable chapter to their surprising season.

This one didn’t look likely to happen when the ninth inning began. After watching right-hander Shawn Hill battle through 61/3 innings and his offense miss several opportunities to jump on Marlins starter Dontrelle Willis, Acta knew he would need something special to pull a comeback.

He got it.

Dmitri Young started things by drawing a leadoff walk. After Austin Kearns struck out, Wily Mo Pena lined a 3-2 fastball to right for a single, advancing pinch-runner Ryan Langerhans to third.

Ronnie Belliard briefly appeared to kill the rally when he popped up a self-called drag bunt for the inning’s second out. With the inexperienced Flores due up, Acta could have summoned Ryan Church or Robert Fick off the bench to pinch-hit.

Flores, though, has made great strides during his rookie season and already had come through in several clutch situations, so Acta left him in.

“He’s gotten some big hits for us in five months now,” the manager said. “I’m not going to start pinch-hitting for him in the last month. … We trust the kid. He’s got some clutch hits for us, so why not keep him out there?”

Flores, who had been down on himself earlier for dropping two routine foul pop-ups, showed his budding maturity and composure, calmly lining a 1-1 pitch from Gregg down the left-field line. Langerhans scored easily, and Pena came all the way around from first to slide in safely with the game-winning run.

“I’ve been in a few situations,” Flores said. “Tonight was another opportunity, bigger than the others. It’s exciting.”

The late rally spared Hill from suffering his first loss since May 1. A model of consistency through the season’s first five months, the right-hander has turned mortal over the last week.

Six days ago in Los Angeles, Hill allowed six earned runs to turn a comfortable 8-3 lead over the Dodgers into a close game. Last night, he allowed a season-high 11 hits in only 61/3 innings, though he managed to keep the damage to a minimum and actually get credited with a quality start.

“But at the same time, it’s 11 hits, and I was in trouble more than I wanted to be,” Hill said. “The big thing is I gave up [an early 2-0] lead.”

No problem. These Nationals have overcome too much this season to let a merely human effort from their best starting pitcher get them down.

No matter how many people are in the stands.

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