By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 29, 2006
ST. LOUIS, April 28 -- So many times over the first four weeks of the season, the scoreboard lights have flickered in the first inning wherever the Washington Nationals might be playing, and the opposition has jumped ahead. Two runs, three runs, four runs in the first. None of it has been surprising for the Nationals, who have yet to climb back in such a game and win it.
Friday night, then, came the most welcome of beginnings right at a juncture when this down-and-out team needed it. Nick Johnson hit one two-run homer in the first, Ryan Zimmerman followed with another, and the Nationals managed something that has been almost foreign early in the season, a never-in-doubt 8-3 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals that snapped a five-game losing streak at sold-out Busch Stadium.
The Nationals, led by Johnson's three RBI -- the National League's leading hitter is now at .373 -- eventually took a 7-1 lead against St. Louis's Jason Marquis, and right-hander Tony Armas Jr. made it stand up with a solid, if occasionally torturous, six-inning, two-run start.
And they withstood a bit of history in the eighth, when Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols -- quickly becoming the game's most feared hitter -- took reliever Felix Rodriguez deep for his 13th homer, tying a record for the month of April. He has two more days to break the mark he now shares with Ken Griffey Jr. and Luis Gonzalez.
So momentarily, at least, the Nationals steadied themselves, though they have four games remaining on this six-game road trip. Alfonso Soriano added a two-run single, and a moribund offense came to life with 10 hits, four for extra bases.
"That's something we haven't done," Manager Frank Robinson said. "And then we were able to score a few more runs. They score a run here or there, and you're not panicking. It's just a nice feeling to be the team that's out in front."
As much as the offense has struggled, the issue that defines this team, though, remains starting pitching. And in truth, the Nationals need even more out of their starters than they got from Armas, who evened his record at 2-2 and kept his ERA at 2.76. As effective as he was, allowing just four hits, he did it in an inefficient manner that has become all his own.
Spotted a 4-0 lead before he even took the mound thanks to those homers from Johnson and Zimmerman, he needed 26 pitches to wade through a tedious first inning, eventually striking out Scott Spiezio with runners on first and third. By the time he completed his sixth and final inning, he had thrown a season-high 109 pitches.
Still, because he is coming off three injury-plagued seasons, he was smiling afterward.
"It's tough when [the media] is like, 'How you feel today?' " Armas said, noting the constant questions about his health. "I just want to go out and pitch six quality innings."
The Nationals, though, cannot be ensured of such efforts on a daily basis, not with the current state of their staff. The would-be ace, John Patterson, went on the disabled list on Friday with a strained right forearm, and he won't pitch in a major league game until May 13 at the earliest, the latest challenge that makes clawing back from an 8-15 start that much harder.
"It's very difficult," Robinson said. "What you try to think about is we need to go through the rotation twice with quality-type starts. Now, it's unrealistic to even think about doing that."
The rotation, for now, includes Armas as perhaps its most stable force -- a statement that doesn't exactly infuse Nationals officials with confidence. But through his first five starts, he hasn't allowed more than three runs in any outing and, therefore, has done what other Nationals haven't thus far -- keep his team in games.
With a rotation that now includes one player, Ramon Ortiz, who has an ERA of 6.75; another, Zach Day, who was essentially cut by the pitching-poor Rockies; and another, O'Connor, who has been in the majors for all of two days, the Nationals will need more performances from Armas like the one he turned in Friday. There are simply no other alternatives.
"He's pitching well," Johnson said. "It's what we need."
Armas was helped by a superlative play from Zimmerman at third, one in which he snared a line smash from Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina in the bottom of the sixth. The ball appeared to be behind Zimmerman and headed to left field for extra bases, but the 21-year-old laid out and snared it.
"Tremendous reflexes," Robinson said.
The odd part came next, when Johnson signaled that Zimmerman had plenty of time to double John Rodriguez off first, and Zimmerman thought Johnson was looking for a lobbed, one-hop throw. The resulting confusion left Johnson sprawling awkwardly in the dirt.
"But we got the out," Zimmerman said, smiling.
For once, they could smile. Whether the Nationals can continue that will be determined Saturday, when Livan Hernandez -- in desperate need of a solid start -- will face Chris Carpenter, the 2005 National League Cy Young winner who is off to another fabulous start. It is just this matchup that, last May, started the Nationals on the hot streak that propelled them into first place in the NL East, because Hernandez outdueled Carpenter in a 3-2 thriller, breaking what had been a five-game losing streak.
Now, the trick will be for Hernandez to repeat that performance nearly a year later. Friday night, by the time closer Chad Cordero recorded the final out by striking out Hector Luna, a steady rain fell on Busch Stadium. Yet the Nationals didn't care, gladly shaking hands in the downpour, a losing streak, finally, behind them.