Church, Bullpen Are Nats' Saviors

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Washington Nationals have been sending starting pitchers to the disabled list with disturbing regularity. Opportunistic hitting and an unflappable bullpen, however, have provided the remedy.

Ryan Church snapped out of a home slump with a three-run double in the decisive fifth inning, and six Washington relievers shut down the Atlanta Braves for a 6-4 victory last night before 20,329 at RFK Stadium.

In winning for the fifth time in six games, the Nationals overcame a 4-1 deficit and scored four unearned runs in the fifth on two hits, three walks and a critical error by Braves second baseman Kelly Johnson. The bullpen allowed just two hits over five scoreless innings for Washington, which will close the four-game series this afternoon and then welcome the Baltimore Orioles this weekend.

Middle reliever Levale Speigner was thrust into the rotation because of injuries, and Manager Manny Acta used seven pitchers, including Billy Traber, who arrived at the stadium just before the first pitch after being recalled from Class AAA Columbus.

The staff combined to strike out 11 and issue no walks, a season first.

"They give you a chance to get back into the game," right fielder Austin Kearns said. "They've been doing it all year. They gave us a chance and Churchy got the big hit."

In 12 innings over two games, the Washington bullpen has allowed one run and six hits.

"We showed what we are capable of," said Jon Rauch, who earned his second save of the year with a perfect ninth. "You just have to keep it going."

The Nationals needed it because Speigner, making his first career start, labored through four innings.

"I thought we could have stretched him a little more, but they were hitting him a little bit," Acta said of Speigner, whose pitch limit was about 75 and ended up throwing 58. "On the kid's positive side, he did throw a lot of strikes [45], maybe way too many."

In the first inning, Atlanta's Edgar Renteria, who has hit safely in 21 of 22 games and had two home runs Tuesday, sent Speigner ducking for cover with a smash up the middle. Chipper Jones followed with a double to right and Andruw Jones brought home both runners with a bouncer over third base.

The Nationals countered with a run in bottom of the inning off Kyle Davies, as Ronnie Belliard singled and scored on Ryan Zimmerman's double to right. Speigner settled down, but in the fourth, a one-out double by Jeff Francoeur, a single by Scott Thorman, a wild pitch and a single by Willie Harris produced two more runs and a 4-1 lead.

Zimmerman -- hitless the previous three games and 2 for 22 the past six games to drop his average to .239 before last night -- produced another run in the bottom of the inning. He went to the opposite field again, launching Davies's first offering over the right-center field wall for his third homer of the year and second in five days.

The Nationals then knocked out Davies in the fifth. The right-hander had retired 12 of 13 batters when former Brave Ryan Langerhans singled, pinch hitter Jesus Flores walked and Johnson mishandled Cristian Guzman's grounder, which should have ended the inning with a double play.

Belliard bounced slowly into a force play, scoring Langerhans, and Zimmerman walked to reload the bases. Church followed with a liner to right-center that cleared the bases, giving the Nationals a 6-4 lead and ending Davies's night. It was a much-needed clutch hit for Church, who was 13 for his last 62 and hovering around .200 at home while recording a .314 average on the road.

"Finally, to come through with the bases loaded," Church said. "That's all we've been preaching, saying it's going to happen, the timely hits are going to happen."

From there, the bullpen took charge. Traber (1-0) was followed by Ray King, who made way for Winston Abreu, who left in favor of Saul Rivera, who yielded to Chad Cordero. In the ninth, Rauch struck out two to end it.

Acta dismissed suggestions that Rauch could become the full-time closer in place of Cordero, who is trying to rediscover his form.

"It's nice to see [Rauch] can close the games," he said. "That being said, what you do in four years, I don't forget in four outings, so after a day off tomorrow if we can, Cordero is our closer again."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company