By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 16, 2006
The Washington Nationals, losers of three straight and 7 of 10, glanced at the standings yesterday and saw that the only National League teams enduring poorer seasons, the Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates, were slowly sneaking up behind them.
They saw a visiting lineup that had pounded their pitching staff for 14 hits, 10 runs and 4 homers an evening earlier. And they checked on the probable starter and saw 36-year-old journeyman Pedro Astacio, whose 16 career losses to the Braves ranked him among the dozen worst all-time against the Atlanta franchise.
But fears of a long, painful night were alleviated by, of all people, Astacio, who retired the first 14 batters he faced and needed just 89 pitches and 2 hours 1 minute to complete a two-hitter and lift the Nationals to a 5-0 victory over the Braves before 24,036 at RFK Stadium.
"It was a superb effort on his part from the first pitch of the ballgame to the last pitch of the ballgame," Manager Frank Robinson said. "He was in complete control the entire ballgame. It was just one of those efforts you don't see too often."
Astacio struck out five, did not issue a walk, didn't allow anyone past first base and even chipped in a hit of his own, a single in the fourth inning.
It was his first shutout in more than four years and provided the Nationals with their first complete game since September.
What was working for him?
"Everything," he responded. "I make a pitch, pitch by pitch, hitter by hitter. I was feeling good."
Astacio, with his eighth team in a big league career that began 14 years ago, missed the first three months of the season with a right forearm strain and did not make his Washington debut until July 3. There were a pair of wins and a pair of losses, but also four no-decisions as his ERA lurked around 5.50.
His career against the Braves had been frightful: a 4-16 record and a 5.22 ERA prior to last night.
"He was great," left fielder Alfonso Soriano said. "He reminded me today of when he pitched as a rookie" with the Dodgers in the early 1990s. "When I see him the first two innings throw strikes and have very good location, I say, 'Man, I think he's going to have a very good night.' "
While Astacio was cruising through the first three innings, the Nationals built a four-run lead.
With two outs in the second, Alex Escobar reached on a slow bouncer along the left side and then raced to third on Brian Schneider's single to right.
That brought up Bernie Castro, who during a 10-4 loss in the series opener Monday had surprised the Braves by bunting for a hit. He couldn't possibly do it again, not with two outs. But on Lance Cormier's first pitch, Castro dragged a bunt and pulled Adam LaRoche far enough from first base to beat it out and give the Nationals a 1-0 lead.
An inning later, Washington used a couple of hits, a couple of errors, an intentional walk and a sacrifice fly to score three more times.
The first of Soriano's two singles got it started. Felipe Lopez followed with a grounder toward right that second baseman Marcus Giles dived to smother. Lopez beat it out, and when Giles's throw skipped past LaRoche, the runners advanced to third and second, respectively.
After a strikeout and an intentional walk, Austin Kearns sent a bouncer toward shortstop Tony Peña Jr. The ball was moving slow enough to avoid a double play and allow Soriano to score, but when it hopped over Peña's glove, Lopez also scored and Nick Johnson advanced to third. Escobar then delivered the third run of the inning with a sacrifice fly.
Astacio had needed just 33 pitches to get through four innings and easily dispatched the first two batters of the fifth, but Jeff Francoeur ended Atlanta's hitless drought with a single to right. Many in the crowd responded with a brief standing ovation. A simple force-out then ended the inning.
"You've seen signs of it, you've seen parts of it, but it just clicked tonight," Robinson said of Astacio's contributions this summer. "He was just in that zone from the first pitch out there and it just kept building -- building and building."
The Nationals added another run -- and ended Cormier's evening -- in the fifth when Kearns's double to the left-center field gap scored Johnson from first.
On this night, however, the way Astacio was mixing his breaking ball and fastball, it was hardly needed.
After Francoeur's hit, Astacio retired six in a row before allowing LaRoche's harmless two-out single in the seventh. That was it as the Braves went down in order in the final two innings.
With the appreciative fans on their feet, Astacio ended the game by striking out Matt Diaz. Washington welcomed a badly needed victory and an overstrained bullpen graciously accepted a much-needed night off.
"I'm sure they're in shock," Robinson said of his relievers. "It was just an outstanding effort on Pedro's part."