- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 24, 2009

The way the first five innings unfolded for the Washington Nationals on Wednesday night - basically, the way their entire season has unfolded - it would have been wholly predictable for them to match five innings of offensive futility with a sleepy four-inning coda and politely trudge to their 100th defeat for the second straight season.

Instead, they staved it off for at least a day with a win that, among their 52 this year, will be tough to surpass in entertainment value and sheer weirdness.

The Nationals didn’t register a hit for 5 2/3 innings against Los Angeles Dodgers starter Chad Billingsley, tied the score, took the lead, gave it back through bullpen misadventures and shoddy fielding and somehow wound up with a 5-4 victory over the National League’s best team.

They finally won when pinch hitter Pete Orr lofted a sacrifice fly ball that right fielder Andre Ethier dropped, with Justin Maxwell racing home for a quizzical walk-off win.

“It was bizarre, but at the same time you’ve got to win those games,” Orr said. “If that slips away from us and we don’t win right there, it’s a pretty big downer. It’s real important that we came out and won that game.”

Facing an opposing pitcher who took a no-hitter into the sixth inning for the second consecutive start, Ross Detwiler acquitted himself well. Detwiler threw an underwhelming 49 of his 90 pitches for strikes in 5 2/3 innings, allowing two hits and two walks in the fourth inning as his command of the strike zone flickered on and off.

For as long as Detwiler was in the game, the Nationals showed such ineptitude against Billingsley that a 3-0 deficit seemed borderline insurmountable.

For all but one pitch in the first six innings, Billingsley sliced through the Nationals’ lineup like a knife through warm butter. He struck out nine in six innings - five of them looking - as he used his swooping curveball to paralyze hitters with two strikes.

“When you’ve got stuff like that and you’re getting ahead, it makes it tougher,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said.

The Nationals hit one ball out of the infield until the sixth, when Zimmerman came up with runners on first and second, courtesy of a fielder’s choice and a walk. Zimmerman changed the complexion of the entire night by squaring up a hanging curveball, blasting the first pitch he saw into the left-field seats and tying the score at 3-3.

The balance shift was striking; Detwiler went from being on track for his seventh loss in 12 big league starts to a no-decision, and Billingsley crashed to a matching no-decision.

It gave Zimmerman 100 RBI for the year, making Adam Dunn and him the first pair of teammates in franchise history each to drive in 100 runs in a season.

But then the game took a hard left into bizarre territory. With runners on first and second and one out in the eighth, Elijah Dukes hit a grounder right in front of second base that Orlando Hudson fielded easily. He stepped on the bag for one out, but his throw pulled James Loney off first base. Cristian Guzman raced around third and slid into home plate ahead of Loney’s attempt to throw him out to give his team the lead.

But the Nationals couldn’t make it last. Interim manager Jim Riggleman had used closer Mike MacDougal in the eighth inning, meaning he had already thrown 18 pitches when he came back out for the ninth.

“I thought if we could score a run [in the eighth], he could go out and pitch with a lead,” Riggleman said. “With all the off days he’s had in the last week, he probably could’ve thrown three innings.”

He quickly and predictably found trouble in the ninth, plenty of it caused by the Nationals’ defense. The inning began with Guzman’s errant throw to first, which took a tough bounce in front of Dunn at first. After Jim Thome’s pinch single, MacDougal walked Rafael Furcal to load the bases.

With former Nationals infielder Ronnie Belliard at the plate, Washington pulled its infield in, trying to get two outs from a ground ball, and Belliard hit one right to Guzman. His throw home, though, pulled catcher Josh Bard’s foot off home plate - a call disputed by the Nationals and television replays - and the Dodgers had the tying run.

Washington managed to survive the inning with the score tied, and the way they won it was almost anticlimactic.

Maxwell singled to start the ninth and advanced to second on Alberto Gonzalez’s sacrifice bunt. First-base coach Marquis Grissom had told him James McDonald’s delivery time to home plate - an appetizing 1.4 seconds - so Maxwell stole third before Orr’s fly ball. That Ethier dropped it only put a fitting, final touch on a strange game.

“We really have nothing to play for in the standings, but we’re all playing hard for our manager,” Maxwell said. “I know the amount of work this coaching staff puts in for our team, so to have this win is big.”

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