- The Washington Times - Monday, October 5, 2009

ATLANTA | The Washington Nationals, by all accounts, should have been itching for this miserable season to end at last and head home for the winter, erasing the past six months from their collective memories.

Something funny, though, happened over the last week. The Nationals started winning, and baseball became fun.

So when the end of the road finally came Sunday, no one wanted to accept it. What could have been a quick, run-through-the-motions finale at Turner Field instead turned into the longest game in the Nationals’ five years of existence, with Washington and the Atlanta Braves delivering blows back and forth, unable to knock the other out.

Finally, in the 15th inning, Alberto Gonzalez lined a two-out single to center and brought Elijah Dukes home with the run that gave Washington a thoroughly satisfying, 2-1 victory in Game 162 of a season that featured plenty of misery but ended in glory.

“Game of the year,” said Jason Bergmann, one of five relievers who combined to toss nine scoreless innings. “No one gave up. We had timely hitting. Quality starting pitching. Great bullpen. Everybody played together as a team. No one quit. And it was probably the easiest game of the year to just quit.”

This was probably the easiest week of the year for the Nationals to quit. They already had wrapped up a second-straight 100-loss season and the majors’ worst record and were facing opponents out of the race themselves.

Yet a Washington club that opened this season with seven straight losses closed it out with seven straight wins. No team in major league history had ever done that.

“I’m just very proud of them, and they should be proud of themselves,” interim manager Jim Riggleman said. “Under the circumstances, with our record and late in the year, to be playing with that kind of intensity, I think it’s really a credit to them.”

One successful week does not completely erase the stench of a 59-103 season. The Nationals have plenty of issues to sort out beginning Monday, with Riggleman’s fate first on the docket. The 56-year-old Rockville native managed to get his players to bring more enthusiasm and clean play to the field than predecessor Manny Acta did, but he still produced only a 33-42 record at the helm.

General manager Mike Rizzo and other members of the front office now must decide whether Riggleman is the best option or whether to look elsewhere for a skipper. A resolution doesn’t appear imminent, so Riggleman boarded a plane Sunday night to his home near Tampa, Fla., unsure of his future.

“I don’t know,” he said. “As I’ve said many times, this is what I love to do. But there’s a lot of people who love to do it. There’s some good people who have never had a chance to do it. There’s some good people who would like to get another chance. You just kind of let your work speak for itself, and hopefully I’ll get the call.”

If Sunday was Riggleman’s last game with the Nationals, his players certainly sent him out in style. Atlanta’s lone run came in the sixth, when Nate McLouth took J.D. Martin deep to right. Washington countered an inning later with a pinch-hit RBI single from Adam Dunn off Tim Hudson.

Then the two bullpens took over and matched zero for zero, escaping several jams, until the Nationals finally struck in the 15th. Dukes drew a one-out walk, and then Wil Nieves rapped a two-out single, setting the stage for Gonzalez to deliver the game-winner off Boone Logan.

Logan Kensing, a man who was designated for assignment three times by two clubs this season, then escaped a two-on, two-out jam in the bottom of the 15th, striking out Brooks Conrad on a check swing to bring his teammates out of the dugout for a hearty celebration in the middle of the diamond.

“I’ve never been in 15 innings on the last day of the season,” said left-hander Ron Villone, a veteran of 15 major league seasons. “The way we turned things around the last week, it’s not the greatest thing because we didn’t accomplish what we wanted to, but going out there and battling and leaving it all out there… I know I left everything I had out there. Everyone else did. We were jumping around. It was one of those days where you go home with a little bit of a smile.”

Four hours and 18 minutes of gripping baseball on the final day of the season was enough to make everyone forget, at least for a while, about the six months of misery that preceded it.

“I’ll tell you, win or lose in that game, that’s one of those ones that you have to say I was proud to be associated with,” Riggleman said. “Both clubs, 15 innings, no errors, great relays to hold runners at third, big hits, great pitching. That’s the kind of baseball we’re hoping to play.”

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