By Rich Dubroff
Davey Johnson couldn't wait to face the Miami Marlins. They're not the Nationals' biggest rivals. They don't have thousands of frenzied fans jamming Nationals Park. They just invariably win here.
On Friday, the Nationals reversed the trend, beating Miami 2-0 in a taut game before 24,640.
It was hardly easy. The Nationals got just four hits, three by Rick Ankiel, who made some outstanding plays-at bat on the bases and in the field.
"He was basically our offense and our defense," Johnson said.
Ankiel blasted a long home run to center field leading off the third for the only run the Nationals technically needed, but the Marlins came so very close to taking it away.
After Ross Detwiler (2-0) pitched six terrific innings, Craig Stammen polished the Marlins (7-7) off in the seventh. With a 1-0 lead, Tyler Clippard took the mound. After Ankiel ran down Craig Coghlan's fly ball to start the eighth, Logan Morrison singled, and moved to second on an infield out.
Emilio Bonifacio came up and Hanley Ramirez waited on deck. Clippard threw pitch after pitch after pitch, 14 in all-and the former National kept fouling them off. On the final pitch, Clippard finally threw ball four, and the potent Ramirez, representing the go-ahead run was at bat.
"He's a pesky guy. I couldn't seem to put him away," Clippard said. "By the time I walked him, I was happy it was over."
After the excruciating at-bat, Clippard struck Ramirez out.
"That was a tremendous battle," Johnson said. "You've got to hand it to Bonifacio. The last guy I wanted to see come up with two guys on was Ramirez, and he handled him all right."
Fortunately for Johnson, Ankiel was up in the eighth. Through seven, he had both hits against Carlos Zambrano (0-1), his first home run of the year in the third, and a single in the fifth.
With Steve Cishek pitching, Ankiel pulled a ball to right with one out. He rounded first, and went straight for second. As he slid, Ankiel put his left hand out for a moment, pulled it back and quickly slapped his right hand on the bag, and second base umpire Phil Cuzzi ruled him safe.
"I'm just thankful Phil Cuzzi hung in there with me," Ankiel said. "A lot of times, you automatically get called out."
Jesus Flores bounced back to Cishek, but instead of trying to tag Ankiel, he went for the easier out at first, and Ankiel wound up at third.
Pinch-hitter Chad Tracy was walked intentionally and Ian Desmond came up.
"I yelled at him: 'make it hurt,'" Johnson said.
Desmond singled to left, and the Nationals (11-4) had a 2-0 lead.
He insisted he wasn't annoyed.
"Maybe in high school I would have been, but I understand the game," Desmond said. "It was a smart move by them, on paper, at least."
In the ninth, Henry Rodriguez came on and recorded his fourth save, but not before walking two batters and throwing a half-dozen pitches in triple figures.
Rodriguez is the closer because Drew Storen is hurt, and Detwiler the fifth starter since Chien-Ming Wang is out. When Wang returns, Detwiler could be out of the rotation.
A six-inning, three hit performance helps. Detwiler walked just one and equaled a career high with seven strikeouts in throwing 79 pitches.
He admitted that he's looking over his shoulder.
"I do have to prove myself every time out because there's someone great right behind me. Once he's healthy, it's my job to put it in their hands," Detwiler said.
Concerned about Detwiler's stamina, Johnson removed him for pinch-hitter Roger Bernadina in the sixth. Detwiler wanted to keep pitching. Johnson thought he could give him another inning, but had a fresh bullpen.
"I have been getting stronger as the games have been going on," Detwiler said.
"To be able to get through the first inning, maybe the first couple, that's huge for me."
In the first four years of Nationals Park, the Marlins won 27 of 36 games, and in the last two years, the gap has been more pronounced. The Nationals lost 14 of 18.
"Historically, we haven't played well against the Marlins, and we've lost a lot of these close ballgames," Clippard said. "It's huge to set the tone in this first game, and get the win, and hopefully win the series."
Johnson got more than a little satisfaction from the win.
"My guys know this is a good test for us. This is a big series," Johnson said. "We've had a history of not playing good against Florida or Miami. Not that we thrashed them, but we beat them first time out of the chute. We knew we're pretty good. We just have to go prove it."