- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 1, 2009

There was no reason to expect anything special from the Washington Nationals in their 81st home game of the year — not when the previous 80 had been installments of a long, slow slide toward the worst record in baseball.

An announced crowd of 23,944 filed into Nationals Park for a languid 4:35 p.m. game between the Nationals and the New York Mets, played only because the Major League Baseball schedule dictated that it should be.

And with nothing on the line, the Nationals waited until the last possible moment of whatever final shot they had to infuse some hope for the 2010 season, and sent the fans home with a stirring finale. Down two runs against Mets closer Francisco Rodriguez in the ninth inning, they patiently pieced together a rally that put them on the doorstep of a victory with Justin Maxwell at the plate and the bases loaded.

Maxwell, who’s played himself onto the edges of the 2010 outfield picture with a solid September, battled Rodriguez through a nine-pitch at-bat, fouling off three attempts from the All-Star to put him away, and stroked a grand slam just over the left-field fence, delivering a blast of hope in the season’s final home game.

It was too late to redeem another impressive performance from No. 1 starter John Lannan, but it gave Washington a rousing 7-4 victory over the Mets that stirred just a few rays of hope for next year.

As he has all month, Lannan turned in a strong effort in an attempt to win his 10th game. Riding a strong two-seam fastball that consistently touched 90 mph, he kept the Mets quiet, save for a pair of runs in a second inning highlighted by Jeff Francoeur’s double, which was reviewed after it spiked off the top of the left-field fence and hit just below the rose bushes sitting on top of the fence.

He allowed three runs, two of them earned, on four hits in seven innings, an even better start than he made against the Mets on Sept. 19. That day, he allowed three runs on five hits. But the one constant both times was Redding - or the Nationals’ inability to do anything against him that would give Lannan a shot at win No. 10.

Redding again took a no-hitter into the fourth inning, allowing his only run on Alberto Gonzalez’s sacrifice fly in the fifth. He held the Nationals to one run on four hits in his six innings, scuttling any shot of Lannan benefitting from his fourth impressive outing against the Mets this season.

The Nationals’ only real chance to come back against Redding was in that fifth inning, when they put two runners on base to start the inning. Apart from that, it was just another exercise in futility from an offense that’s put them together in stunning succession lately.

That was, until the ninth.

Washington had just five hits as a team before the ninth inning. Adam Dunn went 0-for-4. Only Josh Willingham (who scored the Nationals’ first run after a leadoff single in the fifth) and Zimmerman, who hit his 33rd homer of the year in the eighth, counted among the contributors from the middle of the Nationals’ order.

They loaded the bases with one out in the ninth inning, which brought Zimmerman to the plate against Francisco Rodriguez with a chance to win the game. He struck out on a nasty slider from Rodriguez, but Dunn walked to drive in a run.

That brought up Maxwell, who’d replaced Willingham in the eighth. Drafted with Zimmerman in 2005, he’d seen a handful of injuries delay his permanent arrival in the big leagues, with his longest stint coming in September after it seemed the Nationals had moved on without him.

But Maxwell, who entered the day hitting .292 since the call-up, swatted a pair of 3-2 fastballs from Rodriguez into foul territory. And then he connected, sending another fastball over the left-field wall and the fans into delirium.

Maxwell rounded the bases with a walk-off grand slam, got knocked to the ground at home plate and was pummeled by his teammates.

As Zimmerman opened Nationals Park in 2008 with a walk-off homer, Maxwell closed the 2009 home campaign with the most uplifting moment seen at the park since then.

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