Nats Belt 4 Homers, Rock Reds

Ryan Church, left, greets Felipe Lopez after the first of his two homers. Church had six RBI at the Reds' hitter-friendly park, matching Lopez's total on Tuesday.
Ryan Church, left, greets Felipe Lopez after the first of his two homers. Church had six RBI at the Reds' hitter-friendly park, matching Lopez's total on Tuesday. (By Al Behrman -- Associated Press)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 24, 2007

CINCINNATI, May 23 -- That the Washington Nationals have been a bit warm over the past two weeks is surprising enough, but the fact that their MASH unit of a pitching staff was carrying them amounted to an outright shock.

But the arrival here, on the banks of the Ohio River, has a way of putting hitters' minds at ease, because Great American Ball Park rarely has met a fly ball it can't turn into a home run. So it is that the Nationals matched their season high of seven runs Monday, established a new one with eight more Tuesday, then flat busted out Wednesday, crushing a season-high four homers in a 12-7 victory over the Cincinnati Reds, a win they needed 3 hours 38 minutes and six pitchers to finally put away.

How scary is this haunted house? The Nationals already had blown a six-run lead here Monday, and even as Ryan Church blasted a pair of homers and they built an eight-run lead Wednesday, there were memories of that evaporated lead from two nights earlier -- and shivers that it might happen again, particularly when relievers Saul Rivera and Ray King were issuing bases-loaded walks in the Reds' four-run seventh.

"If you know the field, you know their team, the hitters; we knew the game was not over," said catcher Brian Schneider, who hit one of Washington's homers. "Even tonight's game, you can think it's over all you want. But if you think it's over, you're kidding yourself."

The most significant contributor through all the back-and-fourth: Church, the left fielder who had sat out the previous two games with a bruised left forearm suffered when he was hit by a pitch Sunday. The rest, apparently, helped, because Church hit two homers and -- just when it appeared that the Nationals were capable of blowing what had been a 9-1 game -- hit a three-run double in the eighth, reestablishing the blowout. Church's six RBI were a career high, and he became the second National in as many nights to drive in six, joining second baseman Felipe Lopez.

"Maybe we could move this ballpark to St. Louis," Church said, noting the Nationals' next stop on this seven-game road trip. "It's a good yard to hit in. I think that just brings a lot of confidence, knowing that you can flip it out of here at any given moment."

The other homers came from Schneider, a two-run bomb in the fourth, and Ryan Zimmerman, who set up the club's first back-to-back homers of the year when Church followed him in the seventh. So the list of offensive superlatives was one to treasure -- particularly for a team that ranks 29th of 30 teams in baseball in runs. The Nationals had scored this many runs just once since baseball returned to Washington in 2005, and that was last April 8 at Houston. This season, their previous high offensive output for a three-game series was 19 runs, and now they have 27 against the Reds -- with the series finale still to come Thursday.

"We had to get something going," Schneider said, "because the pitching staff's been carrying us for such a long time now."

More important than how they have done this is what they have done. The win was Washington's ninth in its last 13 games, a period of success that allows them small measures of satisfaction. They now have pulled even with the Reds at 18-29, the worst record in the National League. They could, in theory, put the Reds behind with a win Thursday, and then start working on the next target -- the 18-25 Cardinals, whom the Nationals face in a three-game series starting Friday.

This one wasn't without its scary moments, though. Right-hander Jason Simontacchi, in winning for the second time in his four starts with Washington, did an admirable enough job, going 5 1/3 innings and allowing only Ryan Freel's homer to lead off the game. He exited in the sixth with the score 7-1, a bit disappointed Manager Manny Acta came to get him.

"Am I frustrated? Yeah," Simontacchi said. "I want to be out there. I want to finish that inning and go as far as I can. But he makes the decision, and I just give him the ball."

The travails began in the bottom of the seventh, after reliever Saul Rivera retired the first two men he faced. Rivera's performance from that point forward: single, single, walk, walk, hook.

King, a lefty, came on to face slugger Adam Dunn with the bases loaded and a run already in, and he missed on a 3-2 pitch, walking Dunn. King was so upset with the call of home plate umpire Lance Barksdale that he yelled from the mound, was ejected and then had to be restrained.

The fun wasn't over. Edwin Encarnacion's two-run single off Winston Abreu made it 9-5, and the Reds had the tying run in the on-deck circle.

"Here, you're just a couple of walks and a bomb away," Acta said, "from making it a ballgame again."

The Reds never got that bomb, and Abreu finally closed out the seventh. And even when Church hit his bases-loaded double to put the lead back at seven runs, Acta went with his guns, overworked right-handers Jon Rauch and Jesus Colome, well aware that if his offense could do this, the Reds' could, too.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company