Nats Get 4th Win in 5 Games

The Nationals celebrate after surviving Roy Oswalt, one of the NL's top pitchers, who retired 14 straight at one point and was
The Nationals celebrate after surviving Roy Oswalt, one of the NL's top pitchers, who retired 14 straight at one point and was "almost unhittable." (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)

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By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 25, 2006

That the Washington Nationals are different than any other team in baseball has been apparent ever since they moved to town, what with players wondering when and if they would meet the men who would run their team well into the future. So yesterday afternoon, when the Nationals arrived at RFK Stadium and saw the words "Meeting with new ownership: 3:50" scrawled on the grease-board outside the home clubhouse, change finally felt imminent.

So let the auditions begin. Mike O'Connor might be a keeper, because he matched Houston's Roy Oswalt nearly pitch for pitch last night. Keep Ryan Zimmerman around, because the rookie began a winning rally with a leadoff triple in the eighth. And heck, on one feel-good night, a jubilant band of Nationals played one of their best games, a 5-1 victory over the Astros that had an announced crowd of 24,194 -- including those new owners -- hopping at RFK.

Pinch hitter Daryle Ward started the onslaught against beleaguered Houston closer Brad Lidge with a go-ahead single in the bottom of the eighth, and the Nationals poured on three more runs. They now have four wins in their last five games and will have the opportunity to take their second series in a row if they beat the Astros in this afternoon's finale.

In some ways, though, the day's more momentous event came hours earlier. The players and coaching staff met briefly with Theodore N. Lerner, his son Mark, incoming president Stan Kasten and other members of the Lerners' ownership group. The meeting was informal, though the players sat in rows of folding chairs, as if in a theater. The elder Lerner, 80, spoke briefly.

"We just wanted them to start knowing our faces and getting them to expect that we'll be around," Kasten said. "We invited them to come talk to us whenever they wanted about anything that's on their mind."

That, said players, makes a difference. "It shows progress in the right direction," right-hander John Patterson said. "We've seen no progress for so long."

Yet even as they play these games, many wondering about their futures, there remains a period of limbo.

"It's like you're waiting for a new house . . . but nothing can be done until it's finished," Manager Frank Robinson said. "You can't move in till you're finished. That's the period we're in now. Now what you have to do is really kind of put it in the back of your mind and focus on your day-to-day job."

So that's what the Nationals did last night. Oswalt, one of the National League's best pitchers, was "almost unhittable," Robinson said, retiring 14 straight men between the first and the sixth. For most of the evening, it looked as if Morgan Ensberg's solo homer in the second might stand up for Houston, which led 1-0.

O'Connor, though, was nearly as impressive. "I don't really pay attention to who's on the other side," the rookie said.

So in just his sixth big league start, he confounded Houston hitters by throwing whatever pitch he needed in whatever count came up. He allowed three hits, and when Robinson pinch-hit for him in the sixth, it was only because the Nationals needed every chance they could get against Oswalt.

And that was the key inning. Damian Jackson led off with a double, just the second hit off Oswalt. After a groundout, Robinson called on Marlon Anderson to hit for O'Connor, who threw only 80 pitches. Anderson's grounder moved Jackson to third, but if Alfonso Soriano -- the next man -- couldn't get a hit, it seemed the rally would die.

Then, though, came the play of the night. With two strikes on Soriano, Oswalt began his windup. Suddenly, he stopped. Robinson thought the call was obvious: Balk.

"I was waiting for the umpires to call it," Robinson said.

At first, though, they didn't. So Robinson went out to talk to Larry Young, working behind the plate. The crew conferred, and the balk was called. Jackson scored from third, tying the game 1-1.

By the eighth, the Nationals got to the Astros' bullpen. Zimmerman's leadoff triple off Dan Wheeler started it, but the run-scoring hits all came off Lidge, who couldn't retire any of the four men he faced.

So the formula: Meet the owners, change the attitude? Maybe it's simpler than that.

"Guys are starting to realize," reliever Gary Majewski said, "that it's a lot more fun when you win."

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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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