den Dekker caps wild day with game-winning double

ATLANTA - Matt den Dekker was at NBT Bank Stadium in Syracuse at 2:30 p.m. today, taking batting practice in 35-degree weather, when Chiefs manager Billy Gardner called him into his office.

The Nationals were placing Ben Revere on the disabled list with a strained right oblique muscle, Gardner explained, and were calling up den Dekker to take his place. The young outfielder needed to get back to his apartment ASAP, pack his bags and get to the airport so he could make a late-afternoon flight to Atlanta that had already been booked in his name.

"Luckily, my wife was there and helped out a lot," den Dekker said.

Delta flight 2784 departed Syracuse Hancock International Airport at 5:43 p.m. (three minutes ahead of schedule) and pulled up to the gate at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport at 8:04 p.m. (11 minutes early). Ten miles up Interstate 85 at Turner Field, the Nationals and Braves were in the bottom of the third inning in a scoreless game, Stephen Strasburg having just become the club's all-time leader with career strikeout No. 904.

"I don't know how long it will last," Strasburg said of his new record. "But yeah, it's cool to get the ball and add that to the collection."

den-dekker-at-bat-white-sidebar.jpgden Dekker grabbed his luggage and (more importantly) his equipment bag, hopped in a cab and instructed the driver to step on it. By the time he reached the Turner Field clubhouse in the top of the fifth, Strasburg had surrendered a run, leaving the Nationals in a 1-0 hole.

Knowing he might be needed to come off the bench before this game was over, den Dekker went to the batting tunnel to take some swings. He finally emerged in the visitors dugout in the bottom of the sixth, around 8:55 p.m. or so.

"It's crazy," said den Dekker, who had been among the last players cut at spring training last week. "I was sitting in Syracuse this morning, and I'm down here in Atlanta now. You never know what's going to happen."

den Dekker was there to see his Nationals teammates start to put together a rally in the top of the seventh, with Ryan Zimmerman singling, taking second on Jayson Werth's groundout and then scampering all the way home on Wilson Ramos' grounder to short that saw Braves shortstop Erick Aybar throw wide to first and then Freddie Freeman throw wide to the plate past catcher A.J. Pierzynski's backhand stab.

The game was now tied, and recognizing Strasburg's spot in the lineup was due up next, Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez instructed pitcher Bud Norris to intentionally walk Danny Espinosa, putting the onus on Dusty Baker to send up a pinch-hitter.

Baker didn't say much, just a simple: "Deck, you're in!" Though the veteran skipper did also tell Chris Heisey to grab a bat, just in case Gonzalez summoned a lefty from his bullpen and forced a pinch-hitter for the pinch-hitter.

Gonzalez didn't do that, though, so the at-bat was den Dekker's to take. He didn't have time to get much of a scouting report on Norris, aside from a quick back-and-forth with Michael A. Taylor (his old high school teammate in Florida) about what the right-hander had been throwing so far in this game.

"It was probably easier," den Dekker said. "Because I didn't have too much time to think about it and overanalyze it, I guess."

As he walked back from the on-deck circle, Strasburg was surprised when he realized who it was that would be pinch-hitting for him.

"I saw he was getting promoted on the 'Bottom Line' before the game, but I didn't think he was coming here," the pitcher said with a laugh. "I was getting ready to hit, and then he comes out. I was like: 'Where was he?' "

den Dekker dug in and promptly worked the count to 2-1, swinging through a first-pitch fastball over the plate before taking two more low. Norris' fourth pitch was another fastball, 93 mph, right at the knees. den Dekker reached down and hammered it at 9:11 p.m., watching the ball soar toward and ultimately off the wall in right-center field.

Ramos scored from second. Espinosa scored from first. And den Dekker coasted into second base with a wide smile, having just given the Nationals a 3-1 lead.

"That was pretty cool to see," Strasburg said. "Literally coming off the plane and getting a big hit."

den Dekker got to relax a bit after that, watching from the dugout as Shawn Kelley retired one batter in the seventh before handing things over to Felipe Rivero, who retired five batters in a rare, multi-inning hold.

"I told him we're not going to do that very often," Baker said of the young Rivero.

"I think he believes in us, as we do with him," Rivero said of his veteran manager.

Jonathan Papelbon got into a jam in the ninth, surrendering two singles to bring the winning run to the plate. But when Papelbon struck out Pierzynski at precisely 10:03 p.m., the Nationals had themselves a 3-1 victory and a 2-0 record to take home with them to Washington.

Inside the clubhouse afterward, den Dekker found himself scrambling to eat, shower, get dressed and pack his stuff up again for the late-night flight home. The Nationals will be right back at the park Thursday afternoon, their home opener against the Marlins scheduled for 4:05 p.m.

And when they line up near first base a few minutes before that to be introduced to a sellout crowd, den Dekker will be among them, as much a part of this team as any of the 24 other current members of the active roster.

"He's a ballplayer," Baker said, the ultimate compliment a manager can give one of his guys. "He can run. He can throw. He can hit. He doesn't cause any problems. He keeps his mouth shut. He stays ready. And just like tonight, he gets off the plane and helps us. I told him he'd be back, but I didn't know it'd be this soon."

No, actually Baker predicted den Dekker's heroics would come a little later. Asked around 5 p.m. when he expected his new outfielder to arrive, Baker replied: "Maybe he might be here in the eighth or ninth to win it."

Turns out he was off by a few minutes.

"I know," Baker said with a big grin. "I was wrong."

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