- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 10, 2011

NEW YORK | The Nationals lost their third baseman before the game, with Ryan Zimmerman out of the lineup due to an abdominal strain, and they needed to replace their first baseman when Adam LaRoche pulled up at second base with a tweaked left groin.

But locked in an 11th inning tie with the New York Mets Sunday afternoon, the Nationals’ veteran bench came through in a big way when Ivan Rodriguez dropped a single into right field to bring home the go-ahead run and Laynce Nix busted things open with a three-run homer one batter later.

Banged up as they may be, the Nationals left Citi Field with a .500 road trip in the books and their first series victory of the season under their belt, 7-3 winners in their third extra-inning game in the last six days.

“This group of guys has a chance to be something pretty special,” LaRoche said. “You can see it in here when guys show up. … No surprise there, especially Pudge, a guy that’s been around so long, to come up with a huge hit for us. … The (dugout) went crazy.”

The Nationals emptied their bench in order to do it, using 18 players over the course of the 11 innings, sparing only three relievers, three starting pitchers and Zimmerman. Jordan Zimmermann was even called into action in the 11th to lay down a key bunt that moved LaRoche to second base before he was pulled for pinch-runner Wilson Ramos and Rodriguez laced his RBI hit.

The Nationals have been questioned often this young season about composition of their left-handed heavy bench that has an average age of 36 when Rodriguez does not start behind the plate.

But it was the versatility of that bench on Sunday that allowed the Nationals to keep things close with the Mets: starting Alex Cora at third base and being able to replace him with Hairston; pinch-hitting Matt Stairs - who drew his fourth walk in six plate appearances - and pinch-running Ramos and then moving Rodriguez to first base; sliding Nix into left field after a pinch-hit appearance and allowing him a few at-bats to find his home run stroke.

“That’s a credit to Mike Rizzo,” said Nationals manager Jim Riggleman. “The bench he put together there, it’s showed up here lately. Cora’s done a good job, Jerry [Hairston is] very versatile, the threat of Stairs there, he’s drawn a bunch of walks, kept some innings going and Nix’s done what he’s done. Those are good additions that Mike’s made.”

“A lot of us have experience off the bench and it’s good for this team,” Nix said. “I’ve recently done it the last year or two and it’s not an easy job but it’s something that we know how to do and it’s good to have that with our club.”

The news was not all good, though, as the Nationals are unsure about how long they’ll be without their All-Star third baseman. And while LaRoche didn’t feel his groin issue would be enough to keep him out for an extended period, that combined with his sore left shoulder could create some problems and could be taxing that veteran bench a lot more in the near future.

“It’s perfect timing for an off day tomorrow,” LaRoche said. “I’ve had (groin soreness) before, I’ve had it in the exact same spot and I’ve had it worse than this where it’s really been hurting to run. It’s not terrible right now but I could see it getting that way if I don’t do something about it.”

The injuries and the late-game heroics overshadowed another solid start by Jason Marquis who, while giving up three runs, battled well enough to keep the Nationals in the game and long enough for his offense to reach the Mets’ bullpen, and erase another sub-par performance with runners in scoring position.

The Nationals went to work on the Mets’ relievers while theirs again put up zeroes with five more scoreless innings and, ultimately, came away with a win. But they also went 3-for-12 with runners in scoring position, bringing them to 14-for-80 (.175) in those situations this season.

“We had our chances earlier in the game,” Nix said. “We would have rather come through a little earlier and not had it come to that point. … (But) it was a good way to finish off the series. We’re happy to win the series and go back home and let it marinate on the off day.”

• Amanda Comak can be reached at acomak@washingtontimes.com.

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