Ortiz Provides a Good Start

Nationals first baseman Nick Johnson beats the sliding Craig Biggio for an out at first in the third inning as pitcher Ramon Ortiz also races toward the bag.
Nationals first baseman Nick Johnson beats the sliding Craig Biggio for an out at first in the third inning as pitcher Ramon Ortiz also races toward the bag. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 24, 2006

He was the guy they turned to after all the prominent names -- from Kevin Millwood to A.J. Burnett to Matt Morris -- looked at the Washington Nationals, considered their ownerless status and went elsewhere. When the Nationals sifted through the wreckage, they reached down and signed right-hander Ramon Ortiz. The numbers read like this: 5.36 ERA last year, $2.5 million salary this year.

As it turned out, for much of the first six weeks of the season, the Nationals got exactly what they paid for, a man who would take his turn every fifth day and would more often than not get hammered when he did. Yet last night, after Ortiz's latest start, there was music thumping in the Nationals' clubhouse, a practice previously prohibited by Manager Frank Robinson. Of all people, Ortiz effectively and efficiently injected levity back into the season with a seven-inning outing that provided a 4-1 victory over the Houston Astros.

"Everybody's happy," Ortiz said, looking around a clubhouse that has provided far more gloom than gloating this season. "You see. When everything is coming together, everybody's happy."

Three wins in four games doesn't necessarily mean everything is coming together, but the guidelines for what the Nationals need to do were clearly defined in the box score of this tidy 2-hour 8-minute affair that was the shortest game at RFK Stadium since baseball returned last year. The starting pitching was obvious, and Ortiz scattered just six hits over his seven innings, a span in which he needed just 92 pitches. Robinson, though, said he had no thoughts of leaving him in to pitch the eighth.

"That was enough," Robinson said. "Let him leave on a positive note."

So throw in the bullpen. Gary Majewski pitched a dominant eighth, and Chad Cordero was perfect in the ninth for his sixth save. Two relievers, six batters, six outs, no chance for the Astros.

"You're going to see a lot more like tonight," was Majewski's assessment.

What those in the announced crowd of 23,189 might not see for quite some time are a pair of shots that provided a more comfortable margin in the eighth, the first from pinch hitter Daryle Ward, the second from -- who else? -- left fielder Alfonso Soriano.

The Nationals already had one homer from Damian Jackson in the fifth -- his third in nine at-bats, this from a man who hit just three from 2002 to '04, a span of 436 at-bats. As important, though, was the go-ahead run in the seventh. Jose Vidro doubled, and with cleanup man Nick Johnson -- who has been in a monumental slump -- coming up to the plate, Robinson thought one thing: Bunt.

"Have you seen Nick lately?" Robinson asked when questioned about the strategy. "He's struggling right now. Whatever it takes."

If only this ballclub used that slogan more often. Johnson dragged a bunt toward first, and Vidro advanced. The next man, right fielder Jose Guillen, pushed him across with a shallow sacrifice fly to right.

That gave the Nationals a slim 2-1 lead, and all that was left was Cordero to pitch the ninth. But he did so in much more relaxed fashion because with two outs, Ward stepped to the plate against Astros reliever Russ Springer. With the count 3-1, Ward put all of his 245 pounds into a fastball and sent it high down the right field line. When it finally came to rest, it was on the back edge of Section 470, nearly into the yellow seats of the 500 sections.

"I think it went into the parking lot behind the stadium," Vidro said.

Not one to be outdone when it comes to hitting homers, Soriano stepped to the plate and rattled Springer again. This shot was to center field, Soriano's 16th of the season, and it made it 4-1. Moreover, it solidified Soriano -- once the subject of so much negative buzz -- as a fan favorite, for when he returned to left for the top of the ninth, the fans in the stands nearest to him stood and cheered wildly, and he waved his glove and smiled in return.

Yet for once, some of the adoration should have been saved for Ortiz. He had dropped his first four decisions, never completing seven innings, only twice giving up less than four earned runs. Then, last week in Chicago against the Cubs, he pitched flawlessly for five innings, only to fall apart in the sixth, allowing three runs. Yet the Nationals picked him up and came away with a 5-3 victory, Ortiz's first as a National, one which he admitted was a relief afterward.

"The last two outings for him have been great," Vidro said. "He definitely needed it, and we definitely needed it."

What they needed, it turns out, was a game like last night. For the first time in eight games, they didn't make an error. They bunted when they needed to, got a fly ball when they needed it, took the lead late and held on. It looked like -- if you can allow yourself to think it -- the first part of last season.

"This is the time we turned it around last year," Vidro said. "Hopefully, that's the case again."

And when he left the clubhouse, the music was still playing.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company