The Streak remembered: Ryan Church
Game 4, June 5
Nationals 6, Marlins 3
W: Ayala (5-3)
L: Riedling (2-1)
S: Cordero (15)
When the day began, Brad Wilkerson was out with a sore forearm and Jose Guillen was out with an aching right hand - this with Jose Vidro already on the disabled list. A.J. Burnett was throwing 97 mph for Florida - fast enough that Frank Robinson had the stadium radar gun turned off so his club didn't get distracted. The Nationals found themselves down 2-0 headed to the bottom of the seventh - and they scored three times. Setup man Luis Ayala allowed a game-tying run on a pinch-hit double by Lenny Harris (who would later become the Nats' hitting coach) in the top of the eighth - Ayala's first blown save. And Ryan Church connected on a three-run homer in the bottom of the inning, sending the 40,995 fans who filled the stands to their feet.
"The way they have carried themselves and the way they feel after tough losses and the way they carried themselves the next day," Robinson said, "you get a good feeling that good things will happen to them and for them."
The Nats' seventh win in eight games put them in a position in which no Washington baseball team had resided since 1933 - first place.
At end of the day: 31-26, first place in NL East by1/2 game over Philadelphia
When 2005 spring training began, Ryan Church wasn't assured of a spot in the Nationals' outfield. Brad Wilkerson and Jose Guillen were sure to play somewhere, and Endy Chavez was the leading candidate to hit leadoff and play center. But General Manager Jim Bowden was never a fan of Chavez, and though Church struggled in spring training, he won a spot on the team - and then forced his way into the lineup.
The sweep of Florida that put the Nats in first place was one of Church's high-water marks in Washington. The three-run homer that beat the Marlins was his fourth of the year, and he finished the day hitting .319 and slugging .496. When I talked to Church about those few months in first place and his role in it, he didn't specifically remember this home run. But he did remember something else.
"The stands bouncing," he said. "We were in first place, and no one expected that. We were winning, and the fans came out and they started packing the place. We all were feeding off it."
Church's rookie season, though, took a decided turn for the worse on the afternoon of June 22, the final game of the Nationals' long road trip through Anaheim, Texas and Pittsburgh. In a game in which Jose Guillen hit a pair of solo home runs, Church secured the 5-4 victory by slamming into the wall in left field at PNC Park for a game-ending catch. I remember Church dressing gingerly that day - Jamey Carroll had to help him put on his shirt - and the collarbone injury he suffered kept him out of the lineup until July 14.
"What are you gonna do?" Church said when I spoke with him last month in the visiting clubhouse in Philadelphia, where he was in town with the Pirates. "You run through walls for people, and you still don't get any respect."
This was wholly unsolicited. Church became something of a divisive figure for fans in Washington - some thought he was talented and should be given every opportunity to play every day, while others thought his act was tired and that he would never completely fulfill his potential. When I talked with him about his time in Washington and 2005 specifically, he said, "I don't have anything negative about D.C. Just butted heads with Frank. I don't know why."
The injury, though, clearly turned his season around. He was hitting .325 and slugging .544 at the end of that day. The rest of the way, he hit .231 and slugged .352.
"I think that kind of sidetracked me," he said. "I still have my collarbone out. It's not fractured anymore, but it's out of place. Never been the same."
Originally traded by the Nationals to the Mets in the deal that brought outfielder Lastings Milledge to Washington, Church was then dealt to the Braves for outfielder Jeff Francouer, then ended up in Pittsburgh last offseason. He is struggling for the Pirates now, hitting .202 with two homers and nine RBI in 35 games. And behind him in the outfield is that wall that turned around his 2005 season.
"It's just weird," he said. "I'm playing there, and I kind of look back there and say, 'Ah, I remember that part of the wall. Try not to do that again.'"
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