By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 18, 2007
A month or even 10 days ago, each ball the Washington Nationals needed to be fair fell foul, each button Manager Manny Acta pressed failed to bring a response. It d idn't matter who pitched. It didn't matter the cards Acta played. "It was damage control," Acta said.
But on Wednesday, Acta sat Felipe Lopez for just the second time all year, sensing he needed a mental break. Lopez's line yesterday: a single, a double and the go-ahead triple in a 4-3 victory over the Atlanta Braves.
Yesterday, Acta decided to keep Chad Cordero -- just four days back from dealing with the death of his grandmother -- out of his closer's role for one more game. Instead, he turned to Jon Rauch, who pitched a perfect ninth for his third save in as many chances during Cordero's absence.
Yesterday, Austin Kearns hit with the bases loaded in the fifth and managed only a dribbler in front of the plate that Braves starter Chuck James tried to scoop up and tag Lopez as he ran by. But James didn't control the ball, Lopez scored and Kearns ended up with a nasty-looking RBI single.
"You take what you can get," Kearns said.
So for a week now, the Nationals have been taking far more than they have been giving. The victory over the Braves was their sixth in seven games, including three of four from Atlanta, which had lost only one of its 13 series this year. During the dark times -- a grisly 1-8 start to the season that featured too many blowouts and an eight-game losing streak that concluded a road trip last week -- the Nationals kept saying all those rollers that stayed fair when they needed them to be foul would eventually even out. Now, there is evidence that they are.
"They probably would have picked it up and tagged the guy, or something would've happened where he would've been out," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said of Kearns's swinging bunt. "But that's the way it's been going lately, and that's what it takes in this game. Early in the year we weren't getting any breaks, and now it seems like we're getting a lot."
So the Nationals finished the first quarter of their season -- yesterday was their 41st game -- feeling as good about themselves as they had all year. They got a solid start from rookie Matt Chico, who gave up Chipper Jones's two-run homer in the fourth but lasted six innings and allowed three runs. They got three perfect innings from relievers Billy Traber, Jesus Colome and Rauch, making it eight innings of two-hit ball for the bullpen over the final two games against the Braves, both wins.
They got a run-scoring single from first baseman Tony Batista, a veteran who started in the field for the first time this season, and a pinch-hit single from regular first baseman Dmitri Young, who can't play the field because of a sore Achilles' tendon.
"Earlier in the year, these kinds of games where we left guys on base like we did today, at the end we [would] end up losing the game," Acta said. "I think things are just evening out for us. I'm very proud of these guys. You know, these guys, they won't give up. They're going to play hard and do what we want to do."
The current run of success doesn't take away the harsh realities for the Nationals. They still have the National League's worst record. They still have 60 percent of their starting rotation -- John Patterson, Shawn Hill and Jerome Williams -- on the disabled list. They are using a pair of relievers, Levale Speigner and Micah Bowie, as starters. They still struggle mightily with runners on scoring position, and their 3-for-12 performance yesterday merely lifted baseball's worst average in such situations to .195.
Yet in the week since they ended that eight-game skid, they have figured out some things about themselves.
"We just keep learning," Lopez said.
Added new outfielder Ryan Langerhans, who last month was a Brave himself, "This just seems like a real resilient group."
Yesterday was Lopez's turn to be resilient. He had gone 5 for 39 in his previous nine games, dropping his average 33 points to .233, so Acta sat him Wednesday. "It helped me clear my head," Lopez said.
Rested and ready, Lopez singled in the third and doubled and scored on Kearns' roller in the fifth. And in the sixth, he followed Young's game-tying single with a liner to the gap in left-center, the triple that provided the winning run.
A week earlier in Milwaukee, when the Nationals zigged when they needed to zag, it was Lopez who railed against the status quo. "I hate losing," he said then.
But yesterday afternoon, with a clear head and a winning team, he stood at his locker and smiled.
"It's a lot better," he said, "when you win."