Church the hero as Nats sweep Marlins

Church the hero as Nationals sweep

WASHINGTON -- In Saturday's fourth inning, Nationals pitcher Tomo Ohka angered Frank Robinson by turning his back to the manager when he was pulled from the game.

Ohka and his teammates should have nothing short of reverence for Robinson after Sunday's tilt, as the skipper seemingly made all the right moves in a 6-3 win before 40,995 at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium.

Combined with a Braves loss, the Nationals' sweep of the Marlins helped them take sole possession of first place in the National League East. This is the latest a Washington-based franchise has been in first place since the 1933 Senators, who went on to win the pennant.

With two runners on in a tie game in the eighth, Ryan Church peered into the dugout to see whether Robinson would let him face left-handed reliever Matt Perisho.

Church -- who came into the game hitting .235 with one RBI against lefties -- saw his manager wave him to the plate and responded by drilling a fastball into the Marlins' bullpen in right field. It was his first career home run off a southpaw.

"I'm getting a chance to see [left-handers] more and more," Church said. "[Robinson] has confidence in me and he's throwing me out there. Now if I'm put in a situation down the road, I know I can come through."

But that was hardly Robinson's best managerial move of the game, especially considering his bench was almost completely exhausted at that point thanks to some serious finagling in the seventh.

After a Tony Blanco chopper plated Church and sent catcher Brian Schneider to second, Robinson called on Ohka as a pinch-runner. After the game, Robinson reasoned that he did so because Ohka is a good baserunner.

Then Robinson's trustful relationship with Jose Guillen paid off. Guillen came to the manager before the game, saying that he wanted to play despite a bruised right hand after being hit by a pitch the previous night.

Robinson sent Guillen to pinch-hit for Cristian Guzman, and the right fielder roped a single to load the bases.

"He just put me there in the right spot," Guillen said. "He knows me real well, and he knows if I tell him, 'I can hit,' that I can hit."

Carlos Baerga pinch-hit in the pitcher's spot and was hit below the left knee by Jim Mecir to force in the tying run, and then Marlon Byrd hit a sacrifice fly to give the Nats a 3-2 advantage.

Playing small ball was the only way for the Nationals to get to Marlins starter A.J. Burnett, who was dominant throughout the first six innings.

"In the seventh inning, I took the shot and tried to keep the game close," Robinson said of his three substitutions in the bottom of the inning. "I'm going to take that shot because I don't know if I'll get any more."

   Nick Johnson  /   1B
Born: 09/19/78
Height: 6'3"
Weight: 225 lbs
Bats: L / Throws: L

In all, Robinson tampered with seven of the nine spots in the order, leaving only corner infielders Nick Johnson and Vinny Castilla at the same position the entire game.

The only player left on the bench was Brad Wilkerson, who Robinson did not want to use at the plate because of a hand injury.

The moves also paid dividends defensively, as Guillen's relay throw on a Lenny Harris double in the eighth caused Florida third base coach Jeff Cox to hold Alex Gonzalez at third with the potential go-ahead run.

"It worked out because the players executed," said Robinson, not looking for individual praise after the game.

Considering the distractions floating around the clubhouse after Ohka's incident and Byrd's encounter with the umpires Saturday, the players' concentration and execution were not simple tasks.

John Patterson's outing was especially encouraging, as the right-hander lasted six innings and allowed just one run. He scattered seven hits and struck out seven. Robinson said he expects the hurler to be able to go into the eighth or ninth inning in his next start, which will be his third since missing two weeks with back spasms.

   Chad Cordero  /   P
Born: 03/18/82
Height: 6'0"
Weight: 190 lbs
Bats: R / Throws: R

Chad Cordero struck out two in the ninth to notch his 15th save, a new career high. Luis Ayala improved to 5-3 despite surrendering three hits and a run in one inning of relief.

The Nationals get a well-deserved day off on Monday after taking six of seven from the Braves and Marlins, NL East front-runners when the week began.

"We battled all week," second baseman Jamey Carroll said. "I think it's definitely more confidence for us because we know we are going to be battling these guys all year."

The Nationals have now won seven of their past eight games, all coming from behind against teams with winning records.

"You couldn't ask for any more than what we've done in the first seven games [of this homestand]," Robinson said. "This type of baseball is good for you. It really builds a team's resilience and it builds confidence in a team.

"I'm proud of where we are. It's good to be there rather than last place. But, again I emphasize that this is June. We have to understand that, keep our focus, keep our heads on the ground and keep our heads the same cap size."

David Selig is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.