Nats Show Brewers No Mercy

Alfonso Soriano and the Nationals wear uniforms of the Homestead Grays as a tribute to the Negro Leagues.
Alfonso Soriano and the Nationals wear uniforms of the Homestead Grays as a tribute to the Negro Leagues. (Morry Gash - AP)

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By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 3, 2006

MILWAUKEE, June 2 -- The Nationals have let this kind of golden chance slip away so often this season that they refuse to even pinpoint their opportunities now. So what if the Milwaukee Brewers had lost five consecutive games heading into their weekend series against the Nationals? So what if the Brewers planned to start three pitchers with an average ERA of 7.29?

Too many times already in this young season, the Nationals have delighted in anticipation of a susceptible opponent only to walk off the field staggered and disappointed. So Friday night, Manager Frank Robinson hoped his team would take a different approach. "We have to focus on us," Robinson said, "and not think about them."

In a 10-4 Nationals win in front of 21,476 at Miller Park, Robinson's simple sports psychology yielded advanced results. The Nationals excelled in almost every facet they could control. Brian Schneider had three RBI, while Nick Johnson and Jose Vidro both had three hits; Ramon Ortiz pitched effectively for the fourth consecutive game. And as a result, the Nationals finally managed what they rarely have this season: They successfully took advantage of a vulnerable opponent.

"We're finally getting the big hits, and this is a great example," Vidro said. "We did our jobs. We took care of business."

If that sounds like a routine accomplishment, consider the Nationals' track record this season. In early May, Florida came to RFK at 6-18 -- and swept the Nationals. Two weeks later, the Cubs, on a four-game losing streak, hosted the Nationals -- and won two in a row.

In the visiting manager's office at Miller Park on Friday, Robinson joked that the Nationals might not necessarily look forward to facing Milwaukee starter Dana Eveland, an inexperienced pitcher with a 0-2 record and a 7.97 ERA.

"Don't count on anything," Robinson said. "We usually don't do so well against the guys we don't know."

It only took one inning Friday for the Nationals to start eradicating that trend. Eveland entered the game at risk of being sent to the minor leagues, and the Nationals likely gave him a send-off push. Johnson and Ryan Zimmerman both drove in runs in the first inning, and the Nationals' confidence skyrocketed while Eveland's plummeted.

The pitcher walked two batters in the second inning, leading to a run. He hit Royce Clayton and Vidro in the fourth inning -- both players scored -- before Brewers Manager Ned Yost yanked his starter from the game.

The Nationals, meanwhile, built the type of momentum they have rarely enjoyed this season, and it continued long after they chased Eveland from the game. Schneider cleared the bases with a double in the seventh inning. Vidro doubled in two more in the eighth.

"Everybody contributed," Robinson said. "It was good offensive production throughout the lineup."

It took Ortiz's performance to complete one of the most thorough, well-rounded wins of the Nationals' season. The pitcher continued what has been a startling, two-week transformation. He did not win a game until May 18. Now, after Friday's performance, he has won four.

Ortiz excelled Friday for the same reasons he's lowered his ERA by more than a run over his last four starts: He pitched with precision and control, jumping ahead of hitters and using pinpoint location to strike them out. Ortiz (4-4) retired the Brewers in order three times. He struck out seven batters, setting his season high.

Robinson has said that, in the last two weeks, Ortiz has grown from a thrower to a pitcher, and rarely has a player's stock jumped so quickly. In two weeks, Ortiz has turned from a $2.5 million disaster into one of the Nationals most reliable starters. He has developed a more effective off-speed pitch. On Friday, he mixed in a slider that often left hitters dumbfounded.

"I threw the ball down, a good slider, a good change-up," Ortiz said. "Everything is coming together. I don't try to throw it too hard, and I have good control."

Ortiz's greatest accomplishment Friday came in the third inning, with the Nationals ahead, 3-0. Milwaukee's Corey Koskie hit an easy grounder toward first base that looked like the third out of the inning. Johnson fielded the ball and whirled an errant throw that whizzed by Ortiz and Schneider, allowing Koskie to reach second. Milwaukee's next batter, Damian Miller, smacked a home run. Then Brady Clark singled.

Three weeks ago, a more-fragile Ortiz might well have cracked, stuck in a difficult jam when he should have already been sitting in the dugout. But this time, Ortiz responded with poise and confidence. The pitcher inhaled deeply, nodded at his teammates and went on to retire seven consecutive batters.

"I never put my head down," Ortiz said. "I know I can pitch. I just stayed focused on it."


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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