- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 25, 2011

CHICAGO — John McLaren, red-faced and irate, pointing violently at umpire Mike Estabrook after an eighth-inning out call at first base was reversed, ensured that his first game as interim manager of the Washington Nationals would end abruptly. The way the previous 24 hours had gone for the Nationals, that seemed a fitting way for it to happen.

In the midst of manager Jim Riggleman tendering his resignation over a contract dispute Thursday afternoon, McLaren taking the title of interim manager one day later and Davey Johnson reportedly agreeing to be the team’s manager for at least the remainder of the season, the Nationals blew three different save opportunities Friday night and still kept coming.

Four hours and 58 minutes after their first game in the post-Riggleman era began, following 14 innings of baseball — and with help from bench player Brian Bixler — the Nationals ended the game in the only way they know how to these days: They won, 9-5.

“That’s as much intensity as I’ve seen in the game in 24 years,” McLaren said. “It was incredible, the passion they had and the will to win. We made some mistakes pitching, and we were able to overcome it. Like I said, the team’s on a move.”

The Nationals looked poised to walk off the field at US Cellular hours earlier than they did as winners via a familiar formula. Jordan Zimmermann pitched another gem in his 10th consecutive quality start and darted in and out of trouble all night in seven innings of work where he allowed six hits and a walk but no runs.

Even McLaren and left fielder Jerry Hairston Jr.’s ejections in the eighth didn’t derail them, though McLaren’s did leave some ambiguity as to who would manage the team for the remainder of the game.

“I think I was going to manage after that,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman quipped, though it was said to be a team effort among the remaining Nationals’ coaches.

But Drew Storen, Todd Coffey and Tyler Clippard blew three different leads in the ninth inning or later. It wasn’t until Collin Balester’s two clean innings, sandwiched around a four-run 14th, that the Nationals finally got to the resolution they’d desired.

“Baseball’s a weird thing,” Zimmermann said. “There’s highs and lows. And I think we hit about every high and every low you could have tonight.”

If not Friday night alone than certainly over the previous 36 to 48 hours. If the Nationals weren’t raising eyebrows before they went on a tear to win 12 of their last 13 games, there’s certainly no shortage of interest in this team now.

“It’s been a pretty interesting couple of days, I’d say,” Zimmermann said. “Everyone’s upbeat, and you’ve got to stay upbeat in times like this. It’s just a weird situation, and we’ve got to move forward.”

Michael Morse hit a two-run homer in the eighth and Ian Desmond knocked in an RBI single in the ninth to give the Nats a 3-0 lead. With a shutout streak reaching 21 1/3 innings, Storen was on to protect the 3-0 lead, but a three-run homer by Michael Teahen snapped ended all of it. The two teams would head to extra innings, but that too looked to be short-lived when a solo-shot from Laynce Nix in the 10th inning gave them the lead back.

It was immediately lost again in a hellacious inning by Coffey that featured three walks and a hit, with the tying run coming home on a bases-loaded wild pitch. When Bixler, subbing in for Hairston, laced an RBI-double into right field in the 12th, the Nats once again were poised for a win. One out — one strike — from that result, Clippard surrendered a bomb to A.J. Pierzynski and the Nationals were tied again.

They stayed that way until Bixler keyed a four-run 14th by reaching on an infield single, stealing second and scoring on a throwing error by White Sox shortstop Alexei Ramirez.

“I called it,” an animated Hairston said after the game. “[After I was ejected] I go, ‘Bixler’s going to win the game for us, watch.’ I did us a favor. Good to see Bixler get something good.”

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