Saturday, June 17, 2006

As the ball sailed out toward right field, eventually landing just beyond the fence, a huge sampling of the 44,749 fans at RFK Stadium — perhaps even a majority — let out a roar.

Too bad they were all rooting for the visiting team.

Such is life when the New York Yankees come to town. The Bronx Bombers didn’t just take over the stands at RFK last night, they stole the show.

Bernie Williams’ ninth-inning home run off Chad Cordero propelled the Yankees to a 7-5 win over the Washington Nationals, a dramatic comeback that had the largest RFK crowd since baseball returned a year ago captivated all evening.

Unfortunately for the Nationals, who lost their fifth straight game, a sizeable portion of that crowd was hollering for the Yankees. So when Williams crossed the plate after crushing Cordero’s first-pitch changeup for the tie-breaking homer, he was greeted with a sustained chant of “Ber-nie! Ber-nie!”

Just like Yankee Stadium, minus the monuments and eight decades of storied history.

“It’s a little weird,” said Williams, who went 4-for-5, scored three runs and was a triple shy of the cycle. “It’s a testament to how many great Yankee fans we had coming down here. If they can make the trip to Baltimore, I think they can probably just drive the extra half-hour and come to the stadium and cheer for us. It was a great feeling.”

Not so much for the Washington players, who had the home crowd on its feet for much of the night but had to suffer the indignation of walking off the field to a Bronx cheer.

“It was kind of weird to have your home fans cheering the other way,” said rookie pitcher Shawn Hill, who was in line for the win before the bullpen blew it. “You wish that the Nationals fans would kind of pipe up a little more, maybe try to drown them out a little bit.”

Washington’s fans sounded poised to explode when their club took a 5-3 lead in the sixth and then escaped a harrowing seventh inning in which Jon Rauch struck out both Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano with runners on second and third. But a bullpen that has come under intense heat in recent days, leading to coach John Wetteland’s dismissal on Thursday, couldn’t record the final six outs without giving the lead (and more) back.

Even with the late lead, few in the Nationals dugout felt secure.

“It’s the Yankees,” said Alfonso Soriano, the former New Yorker who hit his 24th homer of the season in the third inning. “They have a very good lineup. Two runs is nothing for those guys.”

Washington found that out the hard way. Top setup man Gary Majewski came on in the eighth but immediately got into trouble by loading the bases with one out. Melky Cabrera then laced an RBI single just past diving shortstop Royce Clayton (who injured his right shoulder on the play) to make it 5-4. And when Derek Jeter took a 3-2 fastball high for ball four, the tying run came trotting in from third.

Majewski managed to get two strikes on five straight batters. Four of them, though, wound up reaching base.

“I got ahead of some guys,” he said. “I just couldn’t put them away. It’s aggravating. I stunk it up.”

With the game now tied, manager Frank Robinson had to call upon Mike Stanton and Cordero to get out of the rest of the eighth unscathed, but he still needed another inning out of Cordero (2-2). The closer didn’t have it in him.

With one out in the ninth, he served up the Williams homer. Johnny Damon later added an insurance run on a sacrifice fly, giving Mariano Rivera (4-3) some breathing room to finish this one off.

“We’ve had so much of this this year, and it showed up again tonight,” Robinson said. “It’s a combination of giving up runs in the seventh, eighth, ninth innings and then not taking advantage of the opportunities we have to add runs earlier in the ballgame. It comes back to get you.”

The frantic finish capped off a night filled with plenty of buzz, with both teams trading blows during a wild couple of innings before things finally settled down. Hill was front-and-center of much of it, putting himself into jams in the second, third and fourth innings but managing to escape each time having surrendered only one run.

The rookie’s teammates ensured he left the game with the lead thanks to a steady barrage of clutch hits off New York starter Jaret Wright. None was bigger than Soriano’s two-run homer, a third-inning blast over the center-field fence that left him one shy of injured slugger Albert Pujols for the major-league lead.

And the Nationals weren’t done. Robinson pulled out all the stops in the fourth, sending up Daryle Ward to pinch-hit for slumping No. 8 hitter Marlon Byrd with the bases loaded and one out. Ward came through with a sacrifice fly, and Ryan Zimmerman added an RBI double in the sixth, but Robinson knew that wouldn’t be enough to hold off the hard-charging Yankees.

“You never think it’s enough until you walk off the field,” the manager said. “That’s why you always want to add more. We’ve had opportunities this year. We just don’t maximize them.”

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To

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