WASHINGTON (AP)—For the first time since 1933, a team called Washington is in first place this late in the season. The way they’re going about it, the Nationals must think they’re obligated to create 72 years worth of drama to make up for the drought.
Altercations surrounding Marlon Byrd and Tomo Ohka, which dominated the talk before the game, seemed long forgotten Sunday afternoon by the time Ryan Church hit an eighth-inning, three-run homer to give the Nationals yet another come-from-behind win, 6-3, to complete a sweep of the Florida Marlins.
“You couldn’t ask for any more than we’ve done in the first seven games against these two ballclubs,” said manager Frank Robinson, reflecting on a 6-1 record against Atlanta and Florida during the first seven games of a 13-game homestand. “These were tough ballclubs. They were leading this division. For us to come up and stand up and pull down the wins against them, it’s a good feeling.”
Church’s homer off reliever Matt Perisho, brought in specifically to face the left-handed rookie, was his first career home run against a lefty. It broke a 3-all tie and gave the Nationals their seventh win in eight games.
Washington has trailed in each of its last eight victories, including 2-0 Sunday against Marlins starter A.J. Burnett, who appeared to be cruising toward a shutout before allowing three runs in the seventh.
The Nationals have come from behind for 21 of their 31 victories. They’re putting off their heroics so late that their starting pitchers have just one decision through the first seven games of this homestand.
“Maybe it’s our comfort zone,” said Church, now 7-for-30 in his young career against lefties. “We know going late into the game, we can come back. We’ve been there, we’ve done that. We just have confidence.”
The victory, coupled with Atlanta’s 5-2 loss to Pittsburgh, put Washington in first place in the NL East. Remember the Washington Senators team that won the American League pennant 75 years ago? Of course not, but that’s the last time the word “Washington” topped the standings this time of year or later.
Luis Ayala (5-3) pitched one inning for the victory, even though he allowed a run that tied the game in the top of the eighth. Chad Cordero pitched the ninth for his 15th save, putting the Nationals five games above .500, matching their season high.
“I don’t know what it is,” said Byrd, who gave the Nationals a 3-2 lead with a sacrifice fly in the seventh. “Seems like someone chips in every day. You don’t know who it is.”
Byrd was more than happy to have another victory to deflect some of the attention away from his run-in Saturday night that knocked umpire Joe Brinkman to the ground. Washington is expected to hear Monday whether Byrd will be fined or disciplined.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen after this,” Byrd said. “They’re going to review everything and take it from there. I’ll find out when y’all find out.”
The day began with another potential distraction: Ohka was fined by the team for turning his back to Robinson and failing to give the manager the ball while being removed in the fourth inning of Saturday night’s victory. There was even a brief closed-door meeting before the game, but it didn’t throw the Nationals off their stride.
“This is what I’m saying when we talk about chemistry,” Robinson said before the fine was announced. “The chemistry is very high right now on the ballclub. One person can damage that chemistry to where it hurts the team.”
Meanwhile, the Marlins head home after a miserable 1-6 road trip, and all they have to do was look at the base paths for an explanation. They left 12 men on base Sunday, 35 in the three-game series, and 98 in their last 12 games. They’ve been regularly out-hitting opponents—13-9 on Sunday—but the clutch hits aren’t few and far between.
“Thirty-three hits and 35 men left on base ain’t going to get it done,” said manager Jack McKeon, summing up the series. “We’re glad to get off the road, no question.”
After a quiet six innings, the game erupted with a flurry of runs, hits, errors and pitching changes throughout the final third of the game. The Marlins scored a run to take a 2-0 lead in the top of the seventh, only to have the Nationals respond with three runs in the home half. Florida tied the score in the eighth on Lenny Harris’ RBI double—making him the first major league player to get 200 pinch hits—before Church’s fourth home run of the season settled it.
John Riedling (2-1) took the loss. He walked Nick Johnson on four pitches with one out in the eighth. Vinny Castilla followed by reaching on an error by third baseman Damion Easley, who had pinch-run for Mike Lowell the previous inning. Perisho then took over and served up Church’s blast.
Burnett pitched 6 1-3 innings, allowing six hits and three runs while striking out six in his third consecutive no-decision. He has gone six starts without a victory. He needs four more strikeouts to pass Ryan Dempster (628) as the Marlins’ all-time leader. … Nationals starter John Patterson allowed one run, seven hits, struck out seven and walked two—both intentional—for his fifth consecutive no decision. … Nationals reliever T.J. Tucker allowed a run for the first time this season. He had pitched scoreless baseball in 6 2-3 innings over nine appearances.