Can you think of a time, in the last two years, when the Nationals would have gotten a game to play out this way?
When three errors, a ball lost in the lights and a screwy double play wouldn’t reduce the foundations of a win to rubble? When a slumping slugger would regain his power stroke at exactly the same time a rookie pitcher was making his big-league debut, holding the National League’s top offense to one run?
When Jim Riggleman’s Nationals would be a game-and-a-half better than Joe Torre’s Dodgers?
There’s still 145 games left for Washington’s 2010 season to take on the form of the last two campaigns, a pair of quick-steps to irrelevance followed by a long dirge to termination. But so far, nothing about this team has resembled its two predecessors.
That was clear again on Friday night in a 5-1 win over the Dodgers, during which seven-year minor-league veteran Luis Atilano allowed one run in six innings, Adam Dunn blasted two homers (one off the third deck of Nationals Park) and none of Washington’s mistakes mattered.
“That’s always special. You bring a guy up and he pitches like that,” manager Jim Riggleman said. “It’s something he’ll never forget.”
Atilano, called up from Triple-A Syracuse after Jason Marquis was put on the 15-day disabled list with bone chips in his right elbow, tidily threw strikes for six innings, keeping the Dodgers’ lineup (sans Manny Ramirez, who is out with a right calf strain) off balance and getting 11 groundouts in six innings.
He’s like many of the Nationals’ other pitchers in that he won’t overpower anyone, but he complemented his sinker with two sharp breaking pitches and a good changeup, coming out of the game after six innings with Washington ahead 4-1.
“I think he seemed very composed,” Riggleman said. “It didn’t seem like there was any nervousness about what he was doing. He may have been feeling it, but he wasn’t showing it. That’s pretty impressive for your major-league debut.”
The 24-year-old was a sandwich pick for the Braves in 2003, but languished in the minors for four seasons with Atlanta, and after pitching one minor-league game in 2007 for the Nationals, he was shut down with Tommy John surgery.
The reward for the Puerto Rico native? Pitching to Ivan Rodriguez, his countryman and childhood hero who made his big-league debut when Atilano was six years old.
He took a number of mementos from Friday’s game, including two game balls that will join his parents’ memorabilia collection in Puerto Rico, and the sting of not one, but two shaving cream pies from John Lannan and Livan Hernandez after the game. And Rodriguez had caught him in spring training. But nothing was going to compare to this - a future Hall of Famer leading him to his first big-league victory.
“My dream, it’d never be better than if I’d pitch to Pudge,” Atilano said. “It’s a huge dream to pitch in the big leagues. And then to pitch to Pudge, it’s just incredible. And to win the ballgame is better. It feels great.”
If Atilano’s debut had the feel of kismet, Dunn’s night carried with it a sense of routine that’s mostly been missing since last September.
Dunn did on Friday night what the Nationals pay him handsomely to do; flatten pitchers’ mistakes in spectacular fashion. He did it twice on Friday night, banging a knuckleball from Dodgers starter Charlie Haeger off the facing of the third deck in the fourth inning and taking a fastball deep to center in the sixth.
He hadn’t done that much this year, though; Dunn entered Friday in a 9-for-51 slump and had homered just once this year. In fact, he had homered just once since last September, having gone all spring without hitting one.
“I’m frustrated after every game if things don’t go well,” said Dunn, who took a couple makeshift knuckeballs from closer Matt Capps in batting practice, mostly after Capps claimed he had a good one. “But nothing out of the ordinary. I knew it’s going to come around, and hopefully tonight’s the start of that.”
There were plenty of mistakes to go around, too. Atilano didn’t touch first on an easy groundout in the third inning. Center fielder Nyjer Morgan lost an easy fly ball in the lights in the fourth inning, letting it drop in front of him and allowing Ronnie Belliard to take second when he overthrew the cutoff man, and later missed on a diving attempt to catch Blake Dewitt’s double. Rodriguez left with a stiff lower back, though he said after the game he’d be fine. And Willie Harris was called out on a double play so bizarre, even Riggleman wasn’t entirely sure why it happened the way it did.
Harris hit a bases-loaded grounder to first with one out in the eighth, and Belliard (playing first at the time) threw home to force out Cristian Guzman. Harris got to first, but either forgetting how many outs there were or thinking Belliard had stepped on first before firing home, peeled away from the base and started toward the Nationals’ dugout. First-base umpire Jerry Crawford ruled Harris had abandoned the bag and was automatically out.
The play took so long to finish that Riggleman came out to argue before it was over; he was trying to make a case to home-plate umpire Chris Guccione that catcher A.J. Ellis had made a swipe tag at Guzman, suggesting he didn’t think he’d stepped on home plate for the forceout.
“He wasn’t going to talk with me, because time was still in,” Riggleman said. “He was watching Jerry down there at first, to see what was going on there. I looked down there, and by then - I’m not sure what happened. I think that Willie just vacated the base. And by rule, if you vacate the base, you give up your right to the base and they can tag you out. ... I haven’t talked to Willie yet. I assume he thought the first baseman tagged the base before he threw home. That’s why Willie left - he thought the inning was over.”
A long explanation for a strange play that was ultimately inconsequential. For the Nationals, rarely have things lined up as cleanly as they did on this night.