The Washington Nationals may be 33-50. They may be frustrating and painful to watch at times.
But moments like Sunday’s 12th-inning, walk-off home run by Ronnie Belliard almost can wash away all the sins if you are a Nationals fan.
The Orioles and Nationals rivalry is not Ohio State and Michigan or Auburn and Alabama. But Sunday’s 3-2 win at Nationals Park had that kind of sweetness for Nationals fans. It was the sort of victory that can bring a smile to a baseball fan even in the most hopeless of times.
The largest crowd since Nationals Park opened - 39,824 - showed up to watch the series finale between the rivals. Washington had won Friday night’s game 4-2 and was pummeled by Baltimore 9-1 on Saturday night.
A win Sunday would have given the Orioles the season series 4-2 and the so-called bragging rights in the Battle of the Beltways, which Washington had last year, winning the 2007 season series 4-2.
Some of those fans had left by the time Belliard came up with two outs in the 12th inning after the Orioles had gone ahead, but those Nationals fans who stayed were rewarded with a special moment - particularly as Orioles fans were on their feet and cheering, expecting their ace closer, George Sherrill, to deliver strike three and the win.
It was the most satisfying win at Nationals Park since Ryan Zimmerman’s walk-off home run in the season opener - and Nationals manager Manny Acta called it.
With Dmitri Young on first and two outs and Belliard behind in the count 1-2, Washington pitching coach Randy St. Claire said he turned to Acta in the Nationals’ dugout and predicted Sherrill would throw Belliard a slider.
“And Manny said, ‘And he is going to hit it out of the yard.’ And he did it,” St. Claire recalled.
Yes, he did, a line-drive shot that turned the atmosphere around at Nationals Park by 180 degrees. Orioles fans cursed and collapsed in their seats, while Nationals fans went from disappointed to delirious.
“As soon as the game was over, that is what I was thinking about,” Acta said. “It was a tremendous series, but for all our fans, at least we have a tie in the [season] series, so there were no bragging rights until next year, and we had the bragging rights last year. The way our team is right now, to be able to do this for our fans was tremendous.”
What set it up was Young’s pinch-hit trip to the plate. Acta had been through every position player on the bench and had double-switched so much, using six pitchers over 12 innings, that his scorecard was a mess. He used four left fielders - Wily Mo Pena, Kory Casto, Willie Harris and, at the end, Paul Lo Duca.
“By the end of the game, [bench coach] Pat Corrales came up to me and said, ‘You finally earned your money,’” Acta said. “With all those switches and stuff like that, it was a mess. We had to do what we had to do.”
Young had worked the count to 2-0 against Sherrill, who has 26 saves and is on pace to break the Orioles’ record of 45 set by Randy Myers in 1997.
“I know that Sherrill throws across his body, and he is deceptive,” Young said. “He was 2-0 and out of the zone. Once I got to 2-0, I was going to make him throw strikes. After that, it went to 3-1, and I wasn’t going to swing until it was 3-2. I was fortunate enough to walk.”
What did Young think when he saw the ball come off Belliard’s bat and into the left-field seats?
“I didn’t have to sprint,” he said, laughing.
It was a day to laugh and smile. There might not be that many left this season, but this was one that was a big smile for Nationals fans. Enjoy the moment and consider as well what a remarkable weekend it was for sports in Washington - more than 100,000 fans for the three-game series at Nationals Park, plus another 35,979 on Sunday at RFK Stadium to see D.C. United face David Beckham and the Los Angeles Galaxy.
The weekend illustrated how the sports landscape has changed in the District. Thirteen years ago, you know what was going on in sports in this town this weekend in June? Nada, Zip. There was no D.C. United. There was no baseball in town.
Now June 29, 2008, will go down as the day when both Beckham and the Orioles left town in defeat.