Hits Finally Start Coming as Nats Edge Seattle

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 14, 2008

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 fast.

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 the Seattle Mariners 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.

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. The Nationals ended Dickey's night in the second with six runs, a total they hadn't scored in one inning this season, but a total they'd once amassed in an entire four-game series, (against San Francisco last weekend).

Manager Manny Acta had seen the potential for a breakout. "Well, [Cristian] Guzmán has been consistent throughout the whole season. He's been doing very well," Acta said. "Elijah [Dukes] has found a good groove there batting second. And [Lastings] Milledge, he's been up and down, and at the end now he's been a little more consistent, going out there and learning on an everyday basis."

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, Dukes roped single to right, scoring one. One out after that, an eight-pitch Dmitri Young walk scored another. A double by Jesús Flores and a single by Ronnie Belliard finished the fury.

Dickey left.

The Nationals already had eight hits -- or more than they had 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 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 had pitched with easy assurance in his previous start. He had 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 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 Kenjo 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.

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

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.

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