By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 12, 2006 3:15 AM
PHOENIX, Sept. 11 -- It could develop into a full-scale battle between the pitchers and the hitters if the Washington Nationals were to let it go that far. In a four-game series over the weekend in Colorado, they hit and ran and sent balls all over the park, only to have the pitchers allow the Rockies even more.
"We lost four games in Colorado," second baseman Jose Vidro said. "But how many runs did we score over there?"
The answer, as if it matters, is 24. With this current pitching staff, that wasn't enough to win. Monday night against the Arizona Diamondbacks might have been a re-run. The Nationals hung seven runs on the board, the last scoring on Vidro's bases-loaded walk in the top of the ninth. Yet for a change, it was enough. They broke a four-game losing streak with a 7-6 win that contained many of the same themes as those losses in Colorado -- ill-advised walks, home runs that flew out of the park -- just with a different result.
"We score enough runs to win ballgames," Manager Frank Robinson said. "That wasn't why we were losing, because of the offense."
And so it was that while Vidro soaked up the satisfaction of going 2 for 4 with four RBIs, including what became the game-winner, there was still talk of the tattered pitching staff. Left-hander Billy Traber couldn't go deep into a game for the third straight start, giving up four runs in just three innings -- including solo homers to Conor Jackson, Chris Snyder and Chris Young. And after solid work from Saul Rivera and Ryan Wagner kept the Nationals in it -- allowing them to take a 6-4 lead after a four-run seventh -- right-hander Jon Rauch was entrusted with the advantage for two full innings.
Statistically speaking, Rauch has had a fine season for the Nationals, appearing in a career-high 76 games, taking over the setup role for closer Chad Cordero after Luis Ayala went down with an injury and Gary Majewski was traded to Cincinnati, positing an ERA of 3.62. Robinson, thinking back to his first impressions of Rauch, recalled he made the club for one reason.
"He could throw a strike with his fastball anytime he wanted to -- any time," Robinson said.
Now, though, he can't. With that 6-4 lead -- provided by Nick Johnson's two-run single and another two-run single from Vidro in the seventh -- Rauch walked the leadoff man in the bottom of the seventh on four pitches. Robinson hung his head in the dugout. The Nationals worked out of that inning on Rauch's two strikeouts and a fine catch by catcher Brian Schneider, who snared a popup before it went into the stands.
But in the eighth, more of the same -- a leadoff walk to Jackson. This time, Rauch paid. Veteran infielder Damion Easley battled him to a full count, and then drilled a homer to left, a two-run blast that tied the game.
Rauch has now yielded 13 homers on the year; only one reliever in the National League -- Chicago's Roberto Novoa -- has allowed more. That, though, isn't the part that bothers him.
"I can live with giving up a solo home run here and there," Rauch said. "I can live with that, because the hitter's beating me. The walks, though, that frustrates me more than anything, because it's something I have control over."
Rauch has now walked five men in his last three outings, a span of 3-2/3 innings.
"He's not attacking the strike zone," Robinson said. "For whatever reason, I don't know."
Rauch said the problem is mental.
"I think recently, I'm just trying to go out there and do too good a job, and trying to be too fine with it," he said. "And obviously when you do that, the results aren't favorable -- and it's shown."
So the Nationals' offense, which has been swimming upstream since this road trip began, had to trudge forward yet again. Alfonso Soriano, the left fielder in pursuit of his 40-homer, 40-steal season, reached base twice on walks -- and was picked off in the third, leaving him with 39 steals. But the Nationals still had six runs after eight in part because Vidro, as Robinson said, is "swinging the bat much better." Not only did he drive in a run with a double in the fourth, but he drove the ball solidly to center on a fly out in the fifth, then hit the hard single up the middle to drive in two more in the seventh.
"He's swinging it with more authority," Robinson said.
And that got Arizona reliever Luis Vizcaino trying to be fine with him in the ninth. Felipe Lopez and Ryan Zimmerman led off the inning with singles, and after Johnson struck out, Vizcaino fell behind Austin Kearns before walking him intentionally. That brought up Vidro with the bases juiced.
"I'm seeing the ball good," Vidro said.
He saw three straight balls from Vizcaino, and Robinson gave him the green light. Vidro fouled one pitch off. But he didn't offer at the next pitch, and it missed. Ball four -- and the lead run, just Vidro's second walk in 69 plate appearances since he returned from a month-long stint on the disabled list with a hamstring strain.
Vidro has called this his most frustrating season, what with the injury and all the losing. But in the last week, he has a two-run, game-winning single in the bottom of the ninth to beat St. Louis, and now a four-RBI night to beat Arizona.
"I was struggling, and my swing was not there," Vidro said. "Every hitter goes through that. ... Now, I feel great at the plate."
As do so many of the Nationals. Now, if they could only feel that way on the mound, they might end the season in decent fashion. Chad Cordero, perhaps starting a trend, pitched a perfect ninth for his 25th save.
"We got to finish off the season respectable," Robinson said. "We can't go out here just losing ballgames, losing ballgames, losing ballgames -- in the manner we lost those four games in Colorado."