- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 10, 2009

PHOENIX | The ball jumped off Josh Whitesell’s bat, made a beeline for shallow right field and had just about everyone at Chase Field thinking the same thing.

Base hit. Two runs. Diamondbacks lead.

Austin Kearns and Jesus Flores had other ideas, and thanks to one spectacular defensive play, the Washington Nationals emerged Saturday night with a 2-1 victory against Arizona.

Adam Dunn and Ryan Zimmerman certainly helped make this win possible. Each crushed solo homers, with Zimmerman’s eighth-inning blast extending his major league-best hitting streak to 27 games.

And the Washington pitching staff, from starter John Lannan right through the six relievers who finished off this tense victory, obviously deserves some credit as well.

But the play that had the crowd of 27,233 buzzing and the Nationals clubhouse bouncing afterward was the seventh-inning gem from Kearns and Flores that turned what could have been a two-run single into a tremendous 9-2 forceout.

“Play of the game,” manager Manny Acta said. “Just a tremendous play. It saved the game.”

The situation: Bases loaded, one out, Washington leading 1-0. Whitesell hit a sharp, sinking liner to right, and Kearns came charging in and to his left to try to catch it. Realizing he had no chance, Kearns instead played the ball on a short hop and immediately fired a one-hop strike to the plate.

“I was just hoping to keep it in front of me,” the right fielder said. “I came up with it clean, so I figured I had a shot.”

Former Nationals infielder Felipe Lopez, standing on third at the time, bolted home and slid just as Flores stretched as far as his legs would allow to snare the ball while keeping the tip of a toe on the plate.

“I just set up like a first baseman to try to make the out,” Flores said. “And I caught the ball.”

Umpire Paul Emmel gave the out signal, the crowd booed, Lopez argued and the Nationals celebrated the remarkable play.

“Unbelievable,” Lannan said. “I’ve never seen that happen before. It was a great play. [Kearns] just stuck with it and made a great throw. And [Flores] had the knowledge to know he had to stay on that base. He became a first baseman and made a great play. Unbelievable play.”

That was just one of several big moments in Washington’s fifth win in six games. Zimmerman extended his hitting streak in dramatic fashion with a 422-foot homer to center field in his final at-bat, then made a dazzling defensive play of his own in the eighth to keep the Diamondbacks scoreless.

“We’re starting to play a lot better, making some pitches,” Zimmerman said. “More importantly, we’re playing better defense.”

Zimmerman was bested in the power department only by Dunn, whose latest impressive homer came in the second inning, when he crushed a 3-2 fastball from Doug Davis and sent it soaring toward left-center field. The ball struck the bottom-left corner of the gigantic scoreboard, some 30 feet above the 413-foot sign at the base of the fence.

Though the distance of the solo shot was inexplicably announced as 419 feet — it was later changed to 442 feet — the more pertinent fact was that it gave Washington a 1-0 lead.

That lone run loomed large all evening, because both teams had a devil of a time bringing home runners. The Nationals stranded 16 men on base.

Lannan, who relies on pinpoint control, uncharacteristically issued six walks in six innings, equaling the combined total from his past six starts. But he got outs when he needed to, whether coaxing Josh Wilson into a comebacker with runners on the corners or inducing a double-play grounder with the bases loaded out of Whitesell.

Thus, Lannan (2-3) departed for a pinch hitter in the seventh, the Nationals still leading 1-0 and the young lefty watching with everyone else with anticipation to see if his bullpen could close out another win.

It took six relievers — Garrett Mock, Ron Villone, Logan Kensing, Joe Beimel, Kip Wells and finally Joel Hanrahan — to do it, but that beleaguered group got the necessary nine outs to finish off a victory that left everyone inside the Washington clubhouse impressed.

“Guys made big plays when we had to,” Kearns said. “A game like that, you need to make the big plays.”

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