Nats wish they can play Mets every day
Belliard's blast in the fifth inning proves to be the big blow
WASHINGTON -- Warning: Don't ever call the Nationals spoilers in front of manager Manny Acta, even though his team is playing the Mets and Phillies in the final 11 games of the season.
Spoiling New York's and Philadelphia's chances of missing the playoffs, however, is not the first thing on Acta's mind. His No. 1 goal is to win as many games as possible and prevent Washington from finishing in last place for the fourth consecutive season. A fourth-place finish would mean that the Nationals are making positive steps toward winning a championship in the future.
Right now, the Nats are three games ahead of the Marlins, thanks to a come-from-behind 9-8 victory over the Mets on Tuesday night at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium.
"I'm not looking at myself as a spoiler. I just want to win," Acta said. "I want to win as many games as possible, so my team could keep showing progress. I'll tell you what I'm playing for: I don't want to finish last. And the only way we are going to finish fourth is wining ballgames, because we don't play the Marlins any more. Regardless, if it's the Mets or the Phillies, I just don't want to finish last."
It looked like the Nationals were going to take a few steps back when it came to reaching their ultimate goal this season. Starter Joel Hanrahan had another poor outing, as the Mets took a 4-0 lead in the top of the first inning. It marked the second game in a row that the Nationals were down by that many runs in the first. Hanrahan hurled just three innings and gave up five runs on seven hits.
"Obviously, the walks are there, but I think it all stems from not having my slider right now," Hanrahan said. "When I don't have my slider, they are going to tee off on the fastball. It was what I was fighting today. It's something I need to work on."
Once again, it took the Nationals' bullpen -- eight relievers in all -- to hold the Mets in check. The relievers pitched six innings and allowed only two runs.
The bullpen pitched well enough to allow Washington to make its comeback. After 4 1/2 innings, New York had a 7-3 lead. By the end of the fifth, the Nats took the lead against Maine.
With runners on first and third and one out, Wily Mo Pena singled up the middle to score Nook Logan. Austin Kearns followed and cut the deficit to three runs when he singled to right and sent Felipe Lopez home.
Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson came to the mound to talk to Maine. Whatever advice Peterson gave to Maine, it didn't work. Ronnie Belliard came to the plate and hit the first pitch he saw -- a three-run homer over the left-field wall to give the Nationals an 8-7 lead.
"He's one of my better pitchers, so you let him ride, you let him go," Mets manager Willie Randolph said of Maine. "I thought he was throwing the ball pretty good, actually. I didn't think he was losing it. I thought he was throwing pretty good."
Belliard said he didn't know what pitch he hit for the homer.
"I was looking for a fastball," Belliard said. "I was trying to hit a fly ball to the outfield to get myself an RBI or tie the ballgame. I don't want to hit a ground ball and hit into a double play. I was thinking about hitting the ball in the outfield. I hit it out."
In the sixth inning, D'Angelo Jimenez hit a pinch-hit home run off Scott Schoeneweis to give Washington a two-run cushion.
But in the ninth inning, closer Chad Cordero gave the Nationals their usual scare. He retired the first two hitters he faced, but he had a tough time getting that third out. Unlike his previous outings, Cordero was too pumped up. He acknowledged that his heart was racing trying to get that final out.
After allowing a single to Shawn Green, Cordero had an 0-2 count on Paul Lo Duca, who blooped a single to center to put runners on first and second. Jeff Conine singled to left on the first pitch to score Green and make it a one-run game.
Cordero then found himself in an eight-pitch battle with Ruben Gotay, before striking him out to end the game.
"Usually, I'm real calm," Cordero said. "I'm able to hold my emotions, but I was really getting excited about getting that last out. It's a rare thing for me to get excited."
The Nationals are spoiling the Mets' parade, but they're making progress at the same time.
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.