- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 17, 2008

What is it about September baseball against the New York Mets that brings out the best in the Washington Nationals?

For whatever reason, a club that slogs its way through the season’s first five months and posts the worst record in the major leagues turns into a world-beater when the Mets come to town and a pennant race is on the line.

“It’s an important game, and they know,” manager Manny Acta said. “It’s a game that’s being watched. They know that at least they’re going to be on TV tonight. That’s the only time we see our team on TV, when we play games like this.”

Tuesday night’s 1-0 win over the Mets marked the Nationals’ latest (and perhaps greatest) triumph over a pennant contender, made possible by a brilliant pitching performance from Odalis Perez and relievers Mike Hinckley and Joel Hanrahan.

Perez, beaten up at Shea Stadium a week ago, held the Mets scoreless for 7 1/3 innings. Hinckley failed to allow a run for the 10th time in as many big league appearances. And Hanrahan finished things off in style, retiring the heart of the New York lineup - David Wright, Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado - to preserve another impressive Washington victory.

“When you have to come into the ballgame up one run and you have to face Wright, Beltran and Delgado, that is a legit save,” Acta said.

The Mets’ third straight loss, coupled with the Phillies’ fifth straight win, shook up the heated National League East race. Philadelphia now owns a half-game lead, as visions of 2007 start creeping into everyone’s minds.

New York interim manager Jerry Manuel, all too aware of last fall’s epic collapse and Washington’s role in making it happen, tried to stop this one by holding a pregame meeting in the visitors’ clubhouse at Nationals Park.

By the end of the night, Manuel and the Mets were left to fend questions about the possibility of another September choke job.

“I feel like the atmosphere of the team is all different,” Mets pitcher Mike Pelfrey said. “Nobody’s really worried about that. Nobody’s out there playing and thinking about last year. We’re out there trying to compete, trying to have fun, and we’re trying to win games.”

They didn’t have much fun trying to figure out Perez on Tuesday night, scratching together four singles over the course of seven-plus innings.

Perez (7-10) has experienced an up-and-down season in Washington, but he pitched his best in this game. During a one stretch, he retired 12 straight batters without allowing a ball to leave the infield.

“Best command of the season so far,” Acta said. “He was just tremendous.”

Perez got some help from his defense, particularly left fielder Willie Harris, who made a sprawling catch of Wright’s two-out, two-on liner over his head to end the sixth.

“That saved the game,” Perez said. “A lot of good things happen when we’re playing like that.”

Good things like a two-out double from the pitcher to spur the game’s lone scoring rally. Perez pulled that one off in the fifth, eventually scoring on Cristian Guzman’s ground-rule double.

And good things like a masterful escape in the eighth by Hinckley, the rookie left-hander who entered with two on and one out and the dangerous Jose Reyes at the plate.

Hinckley fell behind 2-0 to the Mets’ multitalented leadoff man, but he rebounded with two straight strikes and then got Reyes to bounce a comebacker. The young pitcher retrieved the ball, but as he spun to throw to second, he realized he didn’t have a good grip on it.

“I just thought: ‘I hope this ball doesn’t go into center field,’” he said.

It didn’t, thanks to Guzman, who leaped high in the air to make the catch and land on the base to record one out.

“I’m just thankful that Guzman can jump like [Michael] Jordan,” Hinckley said.

With two outs now and the tying run on third, Hinckley pitched like a true veteran. He fired up three straight breaking balls to Ryan Church and the Mets right fielder swung and missed three times. It was just one of several impressive moments from a Nationals club that seems to rise to the occasion when the Mets visit the District in September.

“We don’t have nothing against no team,” Perez said. “We just want to go out there and compete, and we’re doing it.”

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