Stanton Sets Up Nats' Win

The Nationals' Mike Vento avoids Phillies catcher Sal Fasano to score the tiebreaking run on a single by Alfonso Soriano in the seventh inning. Soriano drove in all three Washington runs.
The Nationals' Mike Vento avoids Phillies catcher Sal Fasano to score the tiebreaking run on a single by Alfonso Soriano in the seventh inning. Soriano drove in all three Washington runs. (By Rusty Kennedy -- Associated Press)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 1, 2006

PHILADELPHIA, May 31 -- Sometimes a save occurs in the eighth inning, not the ninth. Sometimes the more tenuous spot, the place where the game can be lost, comes before the closer even rises and begins to stretch his right arm, when the man in the game is the guy who receives little glory when he succeeds, the one who is guaranteed grief when he fails.

So here was left-hander Mike Stanton on Wednesday afternoon against the Philadelphia Phillies, his Washington Nationals holding a one-run lead in the eighth. Staring back from the first base dugout at Citizens Bank Park were three of the better left-handed hitters in the National League. Stanton pitched as if wielding an X-Acto knife, first picking apart Chase Utley, then slaying Bobby Abreu with a curveball, then freezing Ryan Howard on a called third strike. Three batters, three strikeouts, perhaps the key moment in the Nationals' 3-2 victory.

"Like you draw it up on the drawing board," Manager Frank Robinson said, and indeed it was. Stanton has made 1,056 appearances, but it's doubtful he has thrown better innings than the eighth on Wednesday.

"Lights out," shortstop Royce Clayton said. "He pitched tremendous. That's the best I've seen him, to tell you the truth."

Stanton's performance allowed Livan Hernandez's solid seven-inning, two-run outing to hold up for his third victory in a row. It allowed the Nationals to get through the most difficult part of the order -- Howard's three-run homer did in Washington on Monday night, Abreu's three-run shot was the difference on Tuesday -- and get the ball to closer Chad Cordero, who courted disaster in the ninth but eventually nailed down his eighth save. And it allowed Alfonso Soriano to be the offensive hero yet again, for he drove in all three runs with his 19th homer and a tiebreaking single in the seventh.

Moreover, the Nationals escaped with at least one win in the series, the kind of win they haven't had recently -- a don't-look-away, one-run game in which one pitch, one swing, could be the difference. Clayton had pointed that out just a day earlier. Their last one-run win was May 7 against Pittsburgh.

"I must have been reading a lot of guys' minds," Clayton said, "because everybody came in and said, 'When was the last time we won a game by one run?' Nobody could remember. Usually, we're coming in after extra innings with our lips puffed out. But it was a classic ballgame. Everybody did a great job."

Some more than others. Take, for instance, Soriano. He took Philadelphia starter Cory Lidle to left field in the third, a homer that followed a single by Hernandez. In the seventh, Soriano again came through with a hard single up the middle that scored rookie Mike Vento from second to provide the decisive 3-2 lead.

"I mentioned it the other day," Robinson said. "Soriano provides a spark. He was in the middle of everything today. . . . It seems like when he does some things in the ballgame, we do things and we have a chance to win."

It doesn't just seem that way. It is that way. Tuesday night, when Soriano went 0 for 4 and struck out three times, the Nationals lost 4-2. But look at the broader picture. In the Nationals' 22 wins, Soriano is hitting .378 with a .440 on-base percentage, a .900 slugging percentage, 13 homers and 29 RBI. In their 32 losses, those numbers fall off precipitously -- a .240 average, .279 on-base percentage and .395 slugging percentage, with six homers and a paltry nine RBI.

Just two months into his tenure as a National, it's clear who makes this team go.

"He's that leadoff guy with pop," Clayton said. "You got to pitch to him very carefully. Otherwise, he can leave in any ballpark. When you have that type of power, it can be 1-0 or 3-0 in a hurry."

That, for much of the first part of the season, has been Hernandez's problem -- falling behind 1-0 or 3-0 or 5-0 in a hurry. But in his last four starts, he has allowed eight earned runs in 28 innings, an ERA of 2.57. Wednesday, he finally admitted that the offseason surgery on his right knee bothered him early in the year, when he was horrible.

"Early in the season, the knee [did] not feel great, and I changed my mechanics," Hernandez said. "I'm getting my mechanics back again. And when you don't have your mechanics, you're going to miss a lot of pitches."

He didn't miss many Wednesday, with his only two mistakes being the solo homers he gave up to Aaron Rowand in the second and David Dellucci in the fifth.

Stanton hardly missed with a single pitch Wednesday. Utley took ball one, then two strikes, then fouled off two pitches before missing strike three. In 22 career plate appearances against Stanton, Abreu had walked nine times and had hits in five others, so Stanton had to get ahead. He did with a called strike one. Abreu then swung and missed, and two balls later, a wicked curveball sat him down. Howard has tremendous power to the opposite field, so Stanton pounded him inside.

"When you feel good, and you have good command," Stanton said, "you can get hitters out."

Cordero could have made Stanton's performance forgotten, particularly after he allowed a one-out double to Dellucci, then walked Abraham Nuñez. But he got pinch hitter Pat Burrell to bounce to first, advancing the runners. And with the winning run in scoring position -- not to mention hearts thumping in the visitors' dugout -- he induced a harmless popup from David Bell.

Thus, Cordero racked up the save. Maybe, though, it should have gone to Stanton, who pitched his best inning of the year.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company