Feisty Nats continue to haunt Mets
Washington leaves Big Apple with three-game sweep
NEW YORK -- A few hours before Wednesday night's game, Nationals manager Manny Acta was sitting in his office when he was asked the following question: Has your familiarity with the Mets made a difference in this three-game series?
Acta, who was a third-base coach for the Mets the previous two seasons, gently slapped his hand on the desk, put a smile on his face and said, "You draw your own conclusions."
Acta then acknowledged that he knew the tendencies of the Mets players, he praised the talent New York had on its roster and also gave credit to pitching coach Randy St. Claire for coming up with a great game plan.
Acta's Nationals have proven recently that they have talent, as well. On Wednesday night, the Nats came back from a five-run deficit to defeat the Mets, 9-6, and sweep the three-game set.
It was Washington's 72nd victory of 2007, surpassing last season's win total. The Nats' next goal is to finish the season in fourth place in the National League East. They're 3 1/2 games ahead of the last-place Marlins.
"We accomplished some things that we wanted to do," Acta said. "First of all, we wanted to win more than 71 games. It has been accomplished. We are still in a very good position not to finish in last. That's what it's all about for us right now."
While Acta continued to reiterate that the Nats are not spoilers, there's no doubt that they've made life miserable for the Mets, who are only one game ahead of the Phillies in the NL East. Washington outscored New York, 32-19, in the series.
"I don't like that word [spoiler], because that's not what we are trying to do here," Acta said. "We are just trying to win games on an everyday basis. We are trying to get our team in the best position possible. What are you going to do? You have to play the game hard and you have to play the game right. That's what we have been doing."
It looked like the game was going to be a blowout in the Mets' favor. In the first three innings, with Nats lefty Mike Bacsik on the mound, Carlos Beltran hit two home runs and Moises Alou added a solo shot.
But the Nats slowly made their comeback against Mets rookie right-hander Philip Humber, who was making his first career start. In the fourth, Ryan Church hit a two-run homer to make it a 5-2 game.
After Joel Hanrahan gave up an RBI single to Alou in the fourth, it was all Washington after that. The Nats scored five runs in the top of the fifth inning. With Humber still on the mound, Washington had runners on first and second when Ronnie Belliard doubled to left-center field to drive in Ryan Langerhans.
Mets right-handed reliever Joe Smith entered the game and gave up an RBI single to Ryan Zimmerman. Up came Austin Kearns who singled to center to send Belliard home. Mets lefty Pedro Feliciano came on in relief of Smith, and Wily Mo Pena then drove in the tying and go-ahead runs with a double to left-center.
The knock on Pena has been that he can't hit any type of breaking pitch. But he went into that at-bat against Smith looking for a slider, and he got one.
"For the last couple of games, when we faced those guys, they were throwing me a lot of breaking balls -- sliders," Pena said. "I was just sitting on that pitch. I was just trying to make contact. That was good to put us on top."
But the hitting hero turned out to be Church, who drove in the final two runs of the game off Mets closer Billy Wagner in the ninth inning. Church ended up with four RBIs on the night.
In his last 18 games, Church is 19-for-45 with four home runs and 18 RBIs. All of this production has come after he lost his left-field job to Pena. Church is now platooning in center field with rookie Justin Maxwell.
Church, who has been on the trading block for more than a year, is hoping that he's sending a message to the Nationals and other teams around the league that he can still play with the best of them.
"I hope [I'm sending a message]," Church said. "I hope they look at it that way. I do."
The Nationals' bullpen then shut out the Mets for the next five frames to sweep the series.
"I can't say enough. That was the whole key," Acta said. "The Mets took the big lead in the beginning, and then our bullpen stepped in, stopped them and gave us a chance to come back and win the ballgame."
Acta decided to go with right-hander Luis Ayala to close out the game instead of closer Chad Cordero, because he was feeling ill.
"I felt fine the whole game," Cordero said. "It definitely wasn't a good feeling. ... I would have been able to go out there, but they said not to worry about it."
The Nationals now head down to Philadelphia for a three-game weekend set Friday, and they'll try to prevent the Phillies from reaching their goal -- making the playoffs for the first time since 1993.
"Now, we are going to Philly and they are hungry," Acta said. "We want to keep on going -- playing hard, playing the game the right way and winning as many games as possible and clinch fourth place."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.