An inning later, a white towel draped over his shoulders, Loaiza led his Washington Nationals teammates out of the dugout for high-fives and back slaps to celebrate a 6-1 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies.
When the Nationals filed into their clubhouse, this was written in capital letters on the message board near the doorway: "The fun has begun!"
Yes, somehow, some way, those ex-Expos are still playing -- and winning -- meaningful games as the calendar turns to Labor Day.
Loaiza struck out 11 and took a shutout into the eighth on short rest, and Preston Wilson and Brian Schneider each hit a three-run homer as Washington gained a game on all three teams it trails in the NL wild-card standings.
"They had a chance to knock us out, as I've said, and they didn't do it," Nationals manager Frank Robinson said. "So we're getting our second wind, it looks like."
What an 18-hour turnaround it was for a club whose apparent lack of focus prompted Robinson to institute a clubhouse ban on stereo music, card playing and cell phones.
At about 10 p.m. ET Saturday night, Nationals All-Star closer Chad Cordero gave up back-to-back homers in the ninth, allowing Philadelphia to erase a 4-1 deficit and tie the game. A Phillies win would have put them five games ahead of the Nationals.
But the Nationals won it 5-4 in the 12th on Wilson's RBI single. And Wilson had three more hits Sunday, including his 22nd homer. It came off reliever Pedro Liriano in the seventh, following walks to Brad Wilkerson and Jose Guillen, and the shot landed in the upper deck.
"Everybody's starting to come together," Wilson said, "and believe that other teams aren't better than us."
Schneider's 10th homer came in the second off Gavin Floyd (1-2), who was called up from the minors to make his first start for the Phillies since April.
The Nationals hadn't scored more than five runs in a game at home in exactly a month. And they had only four three-run homers in 136 games entering the day.
Yet, suddenly, a little before 4 p.m. Sunday, the Nationals found themselves trailing the Phillies by only two games. Losses by the Astros and Marlins left those clubs a half-game behind Philadelphia.
"It hurts just like it did last night. A loss is a loss," said Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, whose club went 6-6 on its longest road trip of the season.
"Our destiny is in our hands. If we're going to win the East or be a wild-card team, now's the time to step up. Right now we're kind of even, so we're going to see how good we are."
Now Philadelphia has a 10-game homestand against Houston, Florida and NL East leader Atlanta. Washington, meanwhile, plays its next seven games at home against Florida, then Atlanta.
"We'll see after this week," Wilkerson said. "I'm very happy right now to see this team bouncing back and seeing what we can do. If we come out and play good baseball, I'll put our chances up against anybody."
Particularly with outings like Loaiza's. The right-hander gave up a run, four hits and four walks, and matched his career high for strikeouts in improving to 10-10.
The Phillies had their chances before Jason Michaels' RBI single in the eighth, but they left two runners on in each of the first, second and sixth innings.
"He got the big outs," Schneider said.
At one point, Loaiza retired 12 consecutive batters, and he improved to 9-2 in his career with three days' rest. Significantly, by going eight innings, he gave a much-needed rest to a beleaguered bullpen. The outing ended a nine-game run in which no Nationals starter earned a win.
"He was putting it right where he wanted to put it," said Ryan Howard, who struck out three times.
Floyd, in contrast, couldn't get his breaking ball to break early. He nearly hit Guillen twice and Wilson and Vinny Castilla once each before eventually plunking Castilla in the second. Schneider drove the next pitch into the visiting bullpen.
"We've been in it the whole time," Schneider said. "We haven't played our best, but you know what? The rest of the division isn't running away with it."
|Esteban Loaiza is fired up after striking out Pat Burrell to finish the eighth inning. (Getty Images)|
|Players of the Game|
Majestic Bryce Harper Nationals Player T-Shirt - Navy Blue Shop Now!
|Jimmy Rollins, SS||3||1||1||0||1||0||2||.261|
|Jason Michaels, CF||4||0||1||1||0||1||1||.311|
|Chase Utley, 2B||4||0||1||0||0||0||1||.287|
|Bobby Abreu, RF||3||0||0||0||1||2||2||.294|
|Pat Burrell, LF||3||0||0||0||1||2||3||.283|
|Ryan Howard, 1B||3||0||0||0||1||3||2||.284|
|David Bell, 3B||3||0||0||0||1||1||1||.246|
|Mike Lieberthal, C||4||0||1||0||0||1||1||.254|
|Gavin Floyd, P||2||0||0||0||0||1||2||.125|
|a- Endy Chavez, PH||1||0||0||0||0||1||0||.216|
|Aaron Fultz, P||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||.333|
|Pedro Liriano, P||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||.000|
|b- Michael Tucker, PH||1||0||0||0||0||0||1||.240|
|a-struck out for Floyd in the 7th|
|b-hit into fielder's choice for Liriano in the 9th|
|2B - Jimmy Rollins (22, Loaiza), Chase Utley (29, Loaiza)|
|RBI - Jason Michaels (27)|
|Team LOB - 8|
|DP - Utley-Howard|
|Gavin Floyd (L,1-2)||6||6||3||3||1||6||1||11.25|
|HBP - Castilla (by Gavin Floyd), Cruz (by Gavin Floyd)|
|Pitches-Strikes - Gavin Floyd 89-57, Aaron Fultz 6-2, Pedro Liriano 38-24|
|Ground Balls-Fly Balls - Gavin Floyd 6-6, Pedro Liriano 2-2|
|Batters Faced - Gavin Floyd 27, Aaron Fultz 1, Pedro Liriano 8|
|Brad Wilkerson, 1B||3||1||1||0||1||0||0||.251|
|Brandon Watson, LF||2||0||0||0||0||1||0||.174|
|a- Marlon Byrd, PH-LF||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||.263|
|Jose Guillen, RF||3||1||0||0||1||2||1||.301|
|Preston Wilson, CF||4||2||3||3||0||0||1||.262|
|Vinny Castilla, 3B||2||1||0||0||1||2||1||.248|
|Brian Schneider, C||4||1||1||3||0||0||2||.277|
|Deivi Cruz, 2B||3||0||1||0||0||0||0||.264|
|Cristian Guzman, SS||4||0||2||0||0||0||1||.198|
|Esteban Loaiza, P||3||0||0||0||0||2||5||.194|
|b- Carlos Baerga, PH||1||0||0||0||0||0||1||.262|
|Joey Eischen, P||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||.333|
|Jason Bergmann, P||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||.500|
|a-hit a sacrifice bunt for Watson in the 7th|
|b-lined out for Loaiza in the 8th|
|2B - Preston Wilson (28, Floyd)|
|HR - Preston Wilson (22, Liriano), Brian Schneider (10, Floyd)|
|SH - Brandon Watson (1), Marlon Byrd (5)|
|RBI - Preston Wilson 3 (77), Brian Schneider 3 (44)|
|Team LOB - 6|
|Esteban Loaiza (W,10-10)||8||4||1||1||4||11||0||3.62|
|Pitches-Strikes - Esteban Loaiza 129-88, Joey Eischen 3-3, Jason Bergmann 9-4|
|Ground Balls-Fly Balls - Esteban Loaiza 7-6, Jason Bergmann 1-1|
|Batters Faced - Esteban Loaiza 32, Joey Eischen 1, Jason Bergmann 3|
|Attendance - 32251|
|Game Time - 2:44|
|Temperature - 79|
|Umpires - Home - Chris Guccione, First Base - Jerry Layne, Second Base - Paul Emmel, Third Base - Ed Montague|