Road Trip Ends Up All Right For Nats

Ryan Zimmerman arrives safely at home for the Nationals, scoring from second on a single by Austin Kearns.
Ryan Zimmerman arrives safely at home for the Nationals, scoring from second on a single by Austin Kearns. (By Dave Einsel -- Associated Press)
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By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 9, 2008

HOUSTON, May 8 -- When the Washington Nationals plunged into an abyss following their 3-0 start, they played bad baseball. Every night, a mistake cost them. Every night, they failed to deliver a timely hit. Every night, they lost.

They arrived here three days ago having righted themselves. But in losing two games to the Houston Astros, that lousy brand of baseball had resurfaced. They had two paths: Tighten up and win the series finale, or head back to the District with a three-game losing streak and renewed questions about their preparation and attention to detail.

So if the Nationals seemed relieved after an 8-3 victory over the Astros on Thursday night -- ending Houston's five-game winning streak -- forgive them. They know that because John Lannan allowed just one run over six innings, and because they got home runs from the most unexpected of sources -- reserves Willie Harris and Rob Mackowiak -- they prevented the start of what could have become a tailspin.

"It was very important to win," Manager Manny Acta said. "This team, they're hot. They're playing good baseball. They made two comebacks on us these last two nights. It was very important for us to go back home and go with a good feeling."

The good feeling was provided by just about every portion of a tweaked lineup that afforded a few regulars the day off on the third game during a stretch in which the Nationals play on 16 straight days. Every starting position player except second baseman Ronnie Belliard got a hit, and the second through fifth hitters -- Cristian Guzmán, Ryan Zimmerman, Nick Johnson and Austin Kearns -- reached base 10 times in 19 plate appearances, scoring six runs and driving in three.

"That's what we need," Acta said. "We need everybody to chip in whenever they get their opportunity."

They also need Lannan. The 23-year-old left-hander was coming off the shortest start of his brief major league career, a three-inning outing against Pittsburgh in which he gave up six runs. That start is now officially behind him. He didn't have his best stuff, as evidenced by his four-pitch walk of Michael Bourn to start the game. And with the Nationals up 4-1 in the sixth, he escaped serious damage in large part because Astros right fielder Hunter Pence scalded a ball directly at shortstop Guzmán, who turned it into a double play.

"A Houdini act," Acta called it.

However he got there, the end result is what the Nationals have come to hope for from Lannan, a solid outing in which the often-dormant offense has a chance for a win. In evening his record at 3-3, Lannan won for the third time in four starts and lowered his ERA to 3.40. That'll do quite nicely.

"My goal today was get a win for us, and get on the plane -- the long, long plane back home -- and have it be a little more enjoyable," Lannan said.

The trip promised to be more enjoyable because Lannan won without a sharp slider and with throwing only one curveball. He survived by placing his fastball and using an effective change-up. Acta acknowledged that not everyone can win on nights when their feel is mediocre.

"Especially when you're that young," Acta said. "Some of the guys, right away they go berserk when they don't have their pitches working and their location. . . . It says a lot about him, especially coming back from that rough outing that he had."

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