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Depleted Nats Do Just Enough to Win

Wily Mo Peña hits his first home run of the season.
Wily Mo Peña hits his first home run of the season. "He'd been the biggest man on the planet who hadn't hit a home run," Ryan Zimmerman said. (Photos By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
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By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 25, 2008

Reprinted from yesterday's late editions

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By Friday afternoon, hours before a series-opening game against the Milwaukee Brewers, nearly every person in the Washington Nationals' clubhouse owed his present mood, and playing status, to a recent trip through the transaction wire.

Injuries had removed four of the team's Opening Day starters and sucked 29 years of major league experience from the active roster. Recent minor league promotions meant that new faces, talking fast and telling how-I-arrived stories, stood in front of unmarked lockers; their nameplates had just been ordered.

Washington's everyday right fielder, Austin Kearns, was undergoing surgery in Cincinnati. Another regular starter, Nick Johnson, strolled around the clubhouse with a red, white and blue cast on his right arm. Erstwhile catcher Paul Lo Duca sat on a leather couch and watched horse racing, all while playing with a therapeutic device for his injured hand.

Then, those Nationals capable of playing took the field and managed the first small step in a massive challenge. With their 5-1 victory against the Brewers last night at Nationals Park, the Nationals found a way -- at least temporarily -- to stabilize in the midst of turmoil. They altered the recurring problem, a meager offense, just enough. They maintained their formidable pitching.

They even extended their season's most persistent story line. In a victory that snapped a two-game losing streak, two more players, Odalis Pérez and Elijah Dukes, departed with injuries.

In the fourth inning, Pérez, the starting pitcher, cut his thumb while delivering a pitch. It started to bleed. He rubbed it with alcohol and pitched one more inning, then left after five -- a quality start while it lasted. "I didn't want to keep doing it, brushing it, and come out of the game with a bigger injury," said Pérez, who guessed he would make his next start.

In the fifth inning, Dukes, the latest everyday right fielder, fouled a pitch off his left ankle and left one inning later, lifted for a pinch hitter. "He was having a tough time just to run," Manager Manny Acta said. X-rays proved negative, however, and Dukes is day-to-day.

Acta again spent time before the game fielding questions about his players -- both the young ones playing because they have to, and the newcomers playing because their Class AAA performances merited it. Those from both categories contributed Friday night.

Wily Mo Peña generated the Nationals' first run, and one of only three hits, when he smoked a 3-1 pitch from Jeff Suppan into the second or third row of the left field seats. The line-drive shot could have traveled through a tunnel without scraping the top. And it was Peña's first of the season, ending a homerless streak of 144 at-bats.

"He'd been the biggest man on the planet who hadn't hit a home run," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said.

Then there was Brian Sanches, the relief pitcher who started his day with news about a promotion and ended his night by replacing Pérez, striking out the side and earning the victory.

"Great feeling to come here and contribute," Sanches said.

Excluding Peña's home run and a four-run sixth inning, the Nationals' lineup spent much of the game continuing its run of utter futility. Between walks in the first and sixth innings, Suppan retired 14 of 15 hitters.

Even the breakout inning was aided by a walk, a hit batsman and a fielding error by shortstop J.J. Hardy that spoiled an easy double play. The two hits that followed, key doubles by Zimmerman and catcher Jesús Flores, parlayed that mistake into four unearned runs.

Pérez exited too soon to earn a victory, but he kept Washington in the game, overcoming some early control problems. Twice, he ended innings with double plays. By game's end, his ERA had fallen to 4.13.

Pérez, too, had started on Opening Day, back when the Nationals had a full contingent. Just how complete has the turnover been? Friday, the team even had a new third base coach -- John Stearns, the manager at Class AA Harrisburg, filling in for Tim Tolman, who had traveled to Arizona for his son's high school graduation.

Lo Duca, once this team's regular catcher, said he'd never seen a team suddenly rely on so many new parts.

"I mean it's tough," he said. "Me, Austin, Nick and Ronnie [Belliard] -- it's an unfortunate situation. I got hit by a pitch. Nick took a swing. Austin had bone chips in there. We're not talking about pulled muscles or anything like that. It's just unfortunate. Hopefully we'll all be back within a month. It's very disappointing."

As Lo Duca talked, he kept playing with his therapy device, a wiry cord that could stretch his hand.

"It's tough watching the game because you want to be out there," he said. "I'm bored out of my mind."


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