Nats Are Looking Spiffier After Homestand

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 5, 2008

When the Washington Nationals arrived back at Nationals Park nearly two weeks ago, there was almost nothing about which to be pleased. "We were bad," infielder Aaron Boone said, and that was reflected in the standings. The Nationals had dropped 15 of their previous 18 games, owned baseball's worst record, and were playing a brand of baseball that supported such results.

But as they gathered at midfield yesterday afternoon, bathed in sun as they shook hands following a fine 5-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates, their circumstances were markedly different. Smiles are no longer forced, bats are no longer strangled, and wins come more than once a week.

"I think now," catcher Paul Lo Duca said, "the guys in here are starting to believe that we can win."

There is, finally, evidence to support that. The victory yesterday -- anchored by another strong performance from right-hander Tim Redding, who was bolstered by two key outs from Saúl Rivera in relief -- was Washington's eighth in its last 10 games. No longer baseball's worst team, the Nationals concluded their longest homestand of the year having distanced themselves from their horrid 5-15 start. They took three of four from Pittsburgh, swept two games from Atlanta, took two of three with the Chicago Cubs and split a pair with the New York Mets.

"A tremendous homestand," Manager Manny Acta said.

There is no one aspect of the game that spurred the turnaround. Rather, the Nationals are playing better in every facet. Through their first 22 games -- a span that included a 7-2 loss to the Mets that started the homestand -- they hit .227, posted a 4.75 ERA, and committed 14 errors. Over the last 10 games, they hit .267, had an ERA of 3.87, and butchered just four balls.

"We're playing good baseball," said Boone, who started in place of Ryan Zimmerman at third and responded with his first home run as a National. "We weren't doing that for two weeks there. . . . You're seeing a good brand of baseball, and it's fun to be a part of that. I think as the bats continue to come around, we feel like we have a chance to be a really good team."

That wretched span of 18 games that followed the Nationals' 3-0 start featured nearly every malady that can befall a squad. They ran the bases poorly, threw to the wrong base on occasion, swung at pitches they should have taken. During that stretch, they lost six games by one run.

"Then we went through the stockpile of losses where it was hard for them to relax and have fun playing the game," General Manager Jim Bowden said. "And now they're relaxed and having fun playing the game. We could easily have won half of those [one-run] games early and been at .500 -- and maybe be right there right now."

Alas, the Nationals are still in last place in the National League East, a division in which they are the only team below .500. But performances like yesterday's -- a clean game in front of a crowd of 30,564 -- make the players, so glum just two weeks ago, believe last place is not where this team will end up. Lo Duca put it plainly. "We're trying to get to .500," he said, "and go from there."

To do that, Redding will have to pitch as he did yesterday, when he allowed one run in 6 1/3 innings, raising his record to 4-2 and lowering his ERA to 3.20. He dominated the Pirates the first time through the order, striking out five of the nine men he faced over three perfect innings. Adam LaRoche touched him for a homer in the fifth, but he held a 3-1 lead in the seventh.

"He's throwing four pitches for a strike," Lo Duca said, "and his fastball, he's spotting it."

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