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What would the Nationals' outfield picture have looked like if Roger Bernadina hadn't leapt at the Nationals Park wall last April 18, caught his right ankle under a pad and broken it? Would they have given him a shot to keep the center field job, never trading for Nyjer Morgan? Or would they have moved him to right field, allowing him enough work to supplant Elijah Dukes and settle that position before the season?
Bernadina, turning 26 in June, has lived much of his career on what-ifs, waiting until age 23 to make his major-league debut and seeing big-league action only in small doses the last two years. He was sent to Triple-A Syracuse to start the season, missing a shot at an eminently winnable right-field job and looking like his career might never get past the what-if stage.
It still might not. But Bernadina gave a glimpse on Wednesday of why the Nationals continue to keep finding out about him.
Debbi talks with Roger Bernadina about his two home runs in the Nats' 6-4 win
In the fourth inning of the Nationals' game against the Mets, Bernadina hit his first career major-league homer off Mike Pelfrey. In the fifth, he made a diving with the bases loaded to rob Jeff Francoeur of an extra-base hit and likely land himself on top-plays compilations for the second time this season. And in the ninth inning, with the Nationals and Mets tied at four, Bernadina blasted a high fastball off Francisco Rodriguez, one of the game's top closers, into the right-field seats, putting the Nationals ahead for good in a 6-4 win.
"I tried to go up the middle. The first pitch, he threw me a breaking ball, and I was sitting fastball," Bernadina said of the second homer. "He threw me a pitch I could handle, and I hit it out."
The victory followed a crushing come-from-ahead 8-6 loss to the Mets on Tuesday, and gave the Nationals their second series win at Citi Field this season. It also gave them a glimpse of a possible solution to their right-field logjam.
Bernadina, who was 3-for-5 on Wednesday, reported to camp in impressive shape, trading a rail-thin physique for a cut torso. He didn't hit enough in the spring to make the team, though, and went to the minors with Justin Maxwell at the end of camp.
But the Nationals called him up when they needed another left-handed bat in the outfield, and Bernadina went 6-for-18 last week in a six-game homestand against the Braves and Marlins. His performance on Wednesday was his boldest statement yet, though, a display of power and discipline at the plate the Nationals had only heard about in the minors.
"He's got power. When he puts everything together, he's going to be a special player," first baseman Adam Dunn said. "He's a young kid, but he's figuring it out."
The outfielder's big day wasn't the only welcome development for the Nationals, whose bullpen became a concern after Brian Bruney and Tyler Clippard combined to allow six runs in the eighth inning on Tuesday against the Mets.
After five up-and-down innings from Craig Stammen (who was actually better at the plate; he drove in the Nationals' three runs that Bernadina didn't), the Nationals' bulllpen took over for the last four. Not only did the group not allow a run, it gave up just two hits and didn't walk anybody. Clippard came in with the game tied, pumped 11 strikes over the plate in 15 pitches and shut the Mets down. He got his remarkable seventh win when Bernadina homered off Rodriguez in the ninth, and Matt Capps got his league-leading 14th save.
"You couldn't draw it up any better for a couple guys," Riggleman said. "We were committed to not use (Doug) Slaten, so it was going to be (Sean) Burnett against left- and right-handed hitters. He did a great job. They stuck the one hit out there (in the seventh), and (Tyler) Walker shut it down with the big double play. Just a lot of great defense, and attitude and energy in the dugout. I couldn't ask for more."
And after dropping a game they should have won on Tuesday, the Nationals nonetheless came back to win a key series against the Mets. They'll head on to Colorado for four games with the Rockies, having proved again they're not going to be knocked down easily.
"I think it says we're pretty good. That was a scary game last night," Dunn said, "I think we could've easily come out here and have been flat. We weren't flat at all. That shows a lot about a good team - just how everyone is relaxed on this team. It's fun."
If they've found even a partial solution to their right-field problems in Bernadina, the Nationals could be even better.