- 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 in getting them to the edge of 100 losses for the second straight season — it would have been wholly predictable for them to match six innings of offensive futility with a sleepy four-inning coda and politely trudge to their 100th defeat.

Instead, they staved it off for at least a day with a win that, among their 52 victories 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 game, took the lead, gave it back through questionable decision-making and shoddy fielding and somehow wound up with a 5-4 victory over the team with the National League’s best record.

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

Facing an opposing pitcher who took a no-hitter into the sixth inning for the second consecutive start, Ross Detwiler acquitted himself reasonably well, though he wasn’t as strong as when he faced Cole Hamels in Philadelphia last week.

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.

But it appeared none of what Detwiler did would matter, though, because for as long as he was in the game, the Nationals showed such ineptitude against Billingsley that a 3-0 Dodgers lead seemed borderline insurmountable.

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

The Nationals hit one ball out of the infield until Ryan 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 one hanging curveball, blasting the first pitch he saw from Billingsley into the left-field seats and tying the game at three.

Detwiler went from being on track for his seventh loss in 12 big-league starts to a no-decision, and Billingsley went from being one pitch from six no-hit innings to a matching no-decision.

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

That’s where 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, slid into home plate ahead of Loney’s attempt to throw him out.

But the Nationals couldn’t make it last.

Interim manager Jim Riggleman put closer Mike MacDougal in for the eighth inning, meaning he had already thrown 18 pitches when he came back out for the ninth. He quickly found trouble in the ninth inning, plenty of it caused by the Nationals’ defense.

The inning began with Cristian Guzman’s errant throw to first, which caused Dunn to bobble the ball while Hudson tripped over Dunn’s right foot. Hudson fell to the ground grabbing his left arm and left the game.

But the Dodgers kept the inning going with their litany of veteran bench players, coaxing a pinch single out of Jim Thome. Then 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. The opportunity arose when Belliard hit a weak grounder 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 game tied, and the way they won it was almost anticlimactic by comparison.

Justin Maxwell singled to start the ninth, advanced to second on Alberto Gonzalez’s sacrifice bunt and stole third, setting him up to score on Orr’s fly ball. That Ethier dropped it only put a fitting, final touch onto a strange game.

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