Hanrahan Rebounds, Nats End 7-Game Skid
Sunday, September 2, 2007
Let's get the important information out of the way first: Teddy Roosevelt, or at least the 10-foot-tall racing version of him, did not win the Presidents Race last night at RFK Stadium. He made a spectacular entrance on a chariot. He heard the crowd of 30,221 chant "Ted-dy! Ted-dy!" But on the night that his bobblehead was handed to Washington Nationals fans, he lost for the 105th time in a row.
That the RFK crowd has rarely, if ever, bellowed the name of a Nationals player with such vigor this season is an afterthought. There were, however, two who were worthy last night. Right-hander Joel Hanrahan rebounded from a horrific start with six one-hit innings, and catcher Jesus Flores homered and hit a go-ahead single, and the Nationals -- who needed a win almost as badly as Roosevelt -- took a 4-1 victory over the San Francisco Giants to snap a seven-game losing streak.
All of that -- heroics from Hanrahan and Flores, Roosevelt's photo finish loss to George Washington -- came on a night when Giants slugger Barry Bonds, who hit his record-setting 756th home run against the Nationals last month, went hitless in four at-bats. Bonds grounded into a fielder's choice when he represented the tying run in the seventh, and flied out for the final out of the game. In each appearance, he was greeted with perhaps a three-to-one mix of cheers to boos, including when he made a sliding catch in left.
For Hanrahan and Flores, though, there were only cheers. Start with the rookie right-hander. Last Sunday, he stood on a mound in Colorado, went into his windup, and had no idea where the ball was going. In 2 2/3 innings in which he gave up nine runs, he walked five men, including the opposing pitcher -- twice, on a total of nine pitches.
Last night, the only hit he allowed came with two outs in the fifth, a slider that Giants third baseman Pedro Feliz parked over the fence in left. Other than that: one walk, and all of 80 pitches. In Colorado, he needed 89 to get those eight outs. The difference?
"I threw strikes," Hanrahan said. That involved a mechanical adjustment he worked on with pitching coach Randy St. Claire, not to mention a small mental adjustment that involved Hanrahan not trying to throw the ball through a wall.
"I felt like I was a little more calm today," Hanrahan said, "not trying to throw as hard."
Still, even as he retired 18 of the 20 men he faced, there was no guarantee he would win. But in the bottom of the sixth, Flores drilled a 1-1 change-up from Giants starter Jonathan Sanchez to center field, tough territory for even seasoned power hitters to reach at RFK. Flores's season, though, has been about defying expectations. He is 22, had never played above Class A, was a Rule 5 draft pick whom Manager Manny Acta said the club hoped to "hide," but he has long since proven they don't need to do that.
"The ball he hit tonight is where the big boys land," reliever Ray King said. "To go dead central here, that's out of every Florida State League park he ever played in."
Flores then helped break the game open. Sanchez came out in the bottom of the sixth after he walked Austin Kearns and hit Wily Mo Pe?a. Ronnie Belliard's infield single loaded the bases, and it brought up Flores, who smacked a single to center off reliever Scott Atchison. When Ryan Church hit a sacrifice fly, the Nationals led 3-1.
Flores is now hitting .250 in 65 games spelling starter Brian Schneider, but several of his hits have had significant impact. He admitted afterward that he has surprised himself with such rapid development.
"This is the big leagues," he said. "I'm coming from high-A. It's a big jump. But . . . I think that's mental, and that's the part I've been preparing myself to be ready for. And I think I made the adjustment."
Which leaves the Nationals with an interesting question. Schneider, a veteran with two years and $9.8 million left on his contract, is struggling offensively, hitting .228. Acta said last night that Flores would likely play more over the final month of the season, but he also continued to praise Schneider's work with the pitching staff.
"If you have the right pieces, we wouldn't be here sitting questioning Schneider's offense," Acta said. "I think the fact is that we have a low-scoring team, and then everything gets magnified. But he does such a tremendous job catching, throwing and guiding this pitching staff."
It will be, however, a serious decision on how to handle Flores next year -- sending him to the minors to play every day, or working him in more regularly with Schneider here. Acta believes in Flores's long-term potential as a power hitter.
"I've been wrong before, many times," he said, "but I do think this kid's going to be a good player up here."
That, though, is for later. Last night, after a Ryan Zimmerman double in the seventh made it 4-1, all that was left was for the bullpen to take over. And when closer Chad Cordero got Bonds to fly to left to end it, Teddy's losing streak was still alive, but the Nationals' was, finally, over.