- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 19, 2009

NEW YORK | Maybe there’s something about the New York Mets that has become a salve for the Washington Nationals this season. It might be the familiarity bred by facing a roster dotted with Nationals alumni, or it could be the cold comfort in knowing the Mets are one of the only teams in baseball who have endured as disappointing a 2009 season as the Nationals have.

Whatever the reason, there’s something about the Mets that soothes the Nationals. There was no reason to think Washington would pull as many solid performances out of slumping ballplayers as it did in a 6-5 victory against the Mets on Friday night, not after a lousy three-game showing in Philadelphia. But there was also no reason to think the Nationals could deliver the kinds of body blows to the Mets’ playoff chances that they did in 2007 and 2008.

And however much cathartic value a meaningless September game can have for a team with baseball’s worst record, this one delivered it for the Nationals. Ryan Zimmerman and Josh Willingham, each in the middle of prolonged droughts, both punctuated two-hit games with home runs. Cristian Guzman broke a 12-at-bat hitless streak with an infield single in the first inning, scoring on Zimmerman’s homer. Even Josh Bard, trudging through the second half after an impressive start to the season, homered and drove in three runs in the win.

It was Washington’s third straight win over the Mets and improved the Nationals’ record against New York to 5-8, the best they’ve fared against any division opponent this year.

“The Mets, kind of like us, we’ve all had a disappointing year,” interim manager Jim Riggleman said. “They battled. They didn’t quit, and our guys are doing the same thing.”

Willingham saved runs with a pair of impressive defensive plays in left field — which became all the more important when the Mets came a hit away from tying the game on Mike MacDougal in the ninth. And J.D. Martin, despite a number of innings that looked like they could spiral out of control, became the Nationals’ only starter with a winning record. It was the right-hander’s second consecutive win, improving his record to 5-4.

“My goal [this season] was just to get as many innings as I can,” Martin said. “Getting five wins, that’s a bonus for me. That’s awesome.”

Martin, as he’s done for the better part of the last month, gave the Nationals a chance to win with the pitching equivalent of a Toyota Corolla; completely lacking flash but full of sturdiness - and, on this night, the ability to duck out of a few jams.

He gave up seven hits in 5 1/3 innings and walked two more but allowed only two runs in that time.

Both of those runs came in the third inning, when the Mets tagged Martin for four hits. But Josh Willingham made an impressive running catch to rob David Wright of a base hit at the left-field wall, and Martin walked off the mound with runners stuck at first and third.

Facing that same situation in the fourth inning, he got a double play before retiring Mike Pelfrey on a comebacker. And after he’d left the game in the sixth, Willingham saved another run by throwing out Daniel Murphy at home plate — on a play the Mets’ television broadcast repeatedly reviewed to see if Murphy’s hand had beat Bard’s tag.

While Martin was keeping the Mets from turning hits into big innings, the Nationals punched Pelfrey around, turning hits into productive innings with an efficiency they haven’t shown lately.

They left just two runners on base. Both Zimmerman and Bard’s homers came right after base hits, putting Washington up 2-0 and then 4-2. Those extra runs, as well as Willingham’s solo homer in the top of the ninth, became extra crucial after MacDougal’s high-wire save.

Entering in the eighth with a 5-2 lead, he came back with a four-run margin in the ninth. But MacDougal walked two of the first three batters he faced, then gave up a pair of hits to Luis Castillo and Wright.

The next two batters — Carlos Beltran and Murphy — each hit grounders up the middle that could have ended the game, but neither one did.

Beltran beat out Ian Desmond’s throw at first base to avoid a double play, and Murphy smoked a grounder to short that Desmond stopped with a spectacular dive. He lost the handle on the ball while throwing to Adam Dunn at first, firing off the top of the first baseman’s glove as the Mets scored to pull within one.

The inning mercifully ended with a hard Francoeur comebacker that smacked MacDougal’s glove cleanly off his hand. As the announced crowd of 38,063 erupted, MacDougal retrieved the ball and lobbed a too-soft-to-cause-trouble throw to Dunn at first for the final out.

And the Nationals, as they’ve repeatedly found ways to do, scored some relief against the Mets.

“We needed a win, for sure, to get back and have a decent road trip,” Willingham said. “It was a big win for us.”

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