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Nationals Jump Out Early, Hold Off Mariners Late

Jesus Flores
Washington catcher watches his two-run double in the second inning go down the left field line. (Jim Bryant - Associated Press)
By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 14, 2008; 2:31 AM

SEATTLE, June 13 -- Maybe the first hour of baseball Friday only substantiated the notion of hitting's inevitability; all year, the Washington Nationals kept saying the hits would come, and then, finally, the hits came. They came in a torrent.

Maybe the first hour indicates nothing more than Washington's ability, previously unrevealed, to bash a knuckleball. For 1 2/3 innings, the Nationals treated Seattle pitcher R.A. Dickey the way a strong wind treats a brown leaf. Fifteen batters took turns bashing the no-spin out of Dickey's knuckler, ripping the right-hander from his place on the mound. Against Dickey, 10 reached base. Eight smacked hits. Seven scored.

Maybe, of greatest substance, all that early damage only created an unfamiliar trap, rife with new kinds of nerves. Washington's productivity in the second inning Friday night against Seattle was unprecedented, but just barely enough for a 7-6 victory at Safeco Field. After a great start, Washington's bats reentered the dead zone, and only closer Jon Rauch's scoreless ninth helped his team escape with a worthwhile finish, too.

In the Mariners, with the worst record in baseball, the Nationals had found a team their own size, and they promptly went about picking apart the offerings of its pitcher. "He left a couple of those pitches up," catcher Jesús Flores said.

By the time Dickey departed, Washington, in 13 official at bats, had seven singles, one double and a 7-1 lead. The Nationals ended Dickey's night in the second with six runs, a total they'd never this season scored in an inning, but a total they'd once amassed in an entire four-game series, (against San Francisco last weekend).

"When we can see the team start hitting like that, we see we can do it," Flores said. "But still -- keep going. Hopefully we can do it from today on into the season."

"That was the first knuckleballer we faced, and we didn't know how the guys were going to handle it," Manager Manny Acta said. "But they made Dickey get the ball up, and we were able to get some good swings on it."

At least for a while, an entire lineup of bats smoldered. Three straight hits in the first, all after two outs, started the barrage. Then, in the second, Washington's potency reached new heights. They found hits of all kinds. Hits to the opposite field and hits with two outs. Hits with the bases loaded and hits that made a big inning bigger. The seventh, eighth and ninth hitters -- Felipe López, Wily Mo Peña and Willie Harris -- all reached base. One out later, Elijah Dukes roped a single to right, scoring one. One out after that, an eight-pitch Dmitri Young walk scored another. A double by Flores and a single by Ronnie Belliard finished the fury.

Dickey left.

The Nationals already had eight hits -- or more than they'd managed in 60 percent of their games this year.

Then they just had to manage a victory.

Building such a lead was, at once, a luxury and a peril. Because the longer Washington starter Shawn Hill (1-3) remained on the mound, the more the idea of a Seattle comeback gained plausibility. Hill had entered the ballgame emboldened by his recent progress. He'd pitched with easy assurance in his latest start, allowing two runs in 7 1/3. He'd regained enough normalcy in his ailing forearm to throw between starts, a drill necessary to maintain feel for his breaking pitches.

But here, against the Mariners, Hill had little grasp on his breaking pitches, and nothing came easy. Seattle bombarded him in five innings for 12 hits and five runs. Through it all, the Nationals' comfort diminished. Five consecutive hits in the third launched a procession for two runs, short-circuited only by a Richie Sexson strikeout and a Kenji Johjima double play. Two more no-out base runners in the fifth scored when Dukes, the right-fielder, let a hissing, hooking line drive from Johjima -- later ruled a double -- skip off his glove. Disappointed with his effort, but in line for his first win of the season, Hill departed a 7-5 game.

"They put up that six spot, and typically that's exactly what I'm looking for," Hill said. "I can go out, be aggressive and get ground balls and go right after hitters. The bullpen obviously came in and shut it down, kind of stopped the bleeding that I was causing. So, hats off to them ... But at the same time, anytime you give up 12 hits, you're not doing something right."

With both teams relying on their bullpens, the game hit a stalemate. The Nationals abandoned their batting groove. Dickey's replacement, Ryan Rowland-Smith, kept Washington hitless for 3 1/3. Two more Seattle relievers followed, and neither allowed a run. The Nationals finished the game with just two hits against the Seattle bullpen.

They finished the game with their collective breath held. In relief of Hill, Saúl Rivera quieted the Mariners for two innings. Joel Hanrahan pitched the eighth and snuck away from two hits -- and some soaring crowd noise -- by allowing just one run on a José López sacrifice fly. Then Rauch came on to clinch his 14th save, preserving a win built in the first hour and nearly relinquished in the final two.

© 2008 The Associated Press