Nats give RFK a fitting farewell win
In final game at ballpark, DC comes back to beat Philadelphia
WASHINGTON -- Nationals catcher Brian Schneider knows what it's like to play a final baseball game. On Sept. 29, 2004, Schneider was a member of the Expos when they played their final game at Olympic Stadium in Montreal.
As Schneider described it, it was a sad time, because it was the end of the Expos franchise and people in the organization lost their jobs.
On Sunday afternoon, there was a much happier feeling when the Nationals played their final game at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium. It was more than just defeating the Phillies, 5-3, in front of a season-high 40,519 fans. As Schneider put it, it was more like a college graduation. The Nationals are going from an old stadium to a brand-new ballpark, which is scheduled to open in 2008 near the Anacostia River.
"We left a lot of close friends in Montreal," Schneider said. "But we are not leaving close friends [in Washington]. We are leaving a stadium. It was fun playing here. I've never been part of a new stadium, so it's going to be fun."
Just like his last game at Olympic Stadium, closer Chad Cordero was the last pitcher to hurl at RFK. In Montreal, he pitched one shutout inning in the Expos' 9-1 loss to the Marlins, but, in Washington, he made it an adventure. Cordero allowed a run on two hits before striking out Jayson Werth to end the game and pick up his 36th save.
"I was envisioning the game to be a little easier," manager Manny Acta said. "I'm sitting in the dugout, and [managing principle owner] Mr. [Ted] Lerner is just standing there waiting for the game to be over, and I'm like 'Come on, Chief [Cordero], the guy is 81 years old and he doesn't need to be put through this.' It was interesting at the end. I wanted it to be easier, but Cordero got it done. That's what's important."
During the congratulatory high-fives, Luis Ayala took the ball away from Cordero. And why not? Ayala was the winning pitcher.
"To be the last pitcher to pitch in Montreal at Olympic Stadium was pretty cool," Cordero said. "To be the last pitcher to throw the last pitch at RFK -- I had the same feeling, too. Nobody else has been able to do that."
There were times when RFK Stadium was not a fun place to play, because the spacious dimensions robbed position players of home runs. One of those victims was Austin Kearns. There were many times this season that he had a hard-hit ball die on the warning track. Ryan Church said recently that Kearns would probably have 25 home runs this season if he played elsewhere.
It's fitting that in the final game at RFK, Kearns was the hitting hero. He broke out of a 1-for-14 slump and went 3-for-4 with two RBIs. Kearns drove in the first run of the game with a single to right off Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels. In the sixth, with the Nationals behind, 2-1, Kearns tied the score with a single to center off reliever Antonio Alfonseca.
Kearns was one guy who never publicly complained about the dimensions of RFK, and he didn't on Sunday, as he's looking forward to playing at the new Nationals Park.
"It's an exciting time," Kearns said. "There are a lot of memories at RFK for a lot of people. It's going to be like a new chapter starting. There are a lot of things to look forward to."
One reason to look forward to the new chapter is Acta. While most baseball experts expected the Nationals to be a bad team, Acta vowed that wouldn't be the case.
As it turned out, the Nats have overachieved primarily because of their pitching. Washington is now in fourth place, three games ahead of the last-place Marlins in the National League East after Sunday's victory. Acta is also happy with the fact that his team finished its three-year run with a winning home record. Washington went 122-121 at RFK.
"I think the most important thing was leaving RFK with a winning record," Acta said. "I've been seeing that on the game notes for the last five days. I'm like, 'Come on, we have to get a win.' Doing it today, being the last game over here, was extra special. I really wanted to win bad today."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.