For One Night, a Perfect 10

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 13, 2008

Reprinted from yesterday's late editions

For 93 games, this never happened. The Washington Nationals, battered from all angles, pounded by irregular misfortunes, never once received the one-game reprieve that is even a lousy team's inexorable right: the laugher.

For teams like the Nationals, whose season has sagged with stress, the anticlimactic ending -- a chance to exhale -- is baseball's best reward. Last night's 10-0 destruction of the Houston Astros at Nationals Park qualified as Washington's most lopsided victory of the season -- and evidence for that was available on both the team's game log and the players' faces.

Tim Redding, whose six scoreless innings anchored the Nationals on one side, forfeited the chance for his 10th consecutive no-decision -- a quizzical form of immortality -- but gained the chance for something even better: the chance to joke.

"It [stinks]," Redding quipped about his win. "I wanted to go into the record book. I told my wife, 'Somehow, some way, I want to go into the record book.' "

In several ways, this game somersaulted into bizarro territory. All season, injuries have ravaged the Nationals, but for once, they found a way to capitalize on another team's short-handedness. Houston starter Roy Oswalt -- "as good as it gets when he's healthy," Austin Kearns said -- had tried to fight through some lingering hip pain. He took a cortisone shot to his sciatic nerve last Saturday. But yesterday, Washington hitters noticed in the first inning that Oswalt looked bothered.

Then, after 17 pitches, they saw him no longer. He left with a hip abductor strain after one inning. He left the gates wide open.

Washington's lineup took king-size bites out of two of Houston's next three relief pitchers, first getting three runs off of Chad Paronto, then adding seven more -- as a lead became a laugh -- against Dave Borkowski. Continuing the run of flip-flops? The Nationals, after relying much of the season on an unpredictable group of young players or unproven replacements, finally built their productivity on the strength of proven veterans. Ronnie Belliard, who went 3 for 4 with five RBI, smacked two home runs, bumping his total to a team-leading nine. Cristian Guzmán added three hits. Kearns -- who, like Belliard, has spent time on the disabled list -- went 2 for 2 with a home run.

"We needed a game like this," Manager Manny Acta later said. "As I said, I think we were due for an easy one where we didn't have to burn every brain cell."

As the game neared its end, whatever remained of the 33,653 crowd rose to its feet, cheering the obvious. They had witnessed a game with no tension, no last-moment punches to the gut, no bruised averages, no bloated ERAs. Just pure relaxation. (Only downside: Dmitri Young exited mid-game with lower back tightness. He is day-to-day.)

When Steven Shell, who had relieved Redding after six, induced a Brad Ausmus lineout to center, the game ended and one final lighthearted scenario ensued. Entering the ninth, a Washington clubhouse attendant had realized that Shell needed to pitch just one more inning for a save -- the first three-inning save in Washington history. So he paid attention, and grabbed the ball when the outcome became official.

When Shell walked into the clubhouse, the attendant, Mike Wallace, asked if Shell wanted the ball.

"I didn't know it was a save," Shell said soon after.

Wallace inscribed the ball with all the specifics, a veritable box score of information: Shell had thrown 43 pitches, the ball read. Redding had earned the win, and Paronto, who allowed six of the first eight batters he faced to reach base, took the loss.

Belliard's first home run of the game came on the first chance against Paronto, recalled from Class AAA Round Rock just earlier this week. An 0-1 pitch crossed the plate low, and Belliard treated it like a Titleist, sending it on a high arc over the left field fence. Before leaving the batter's box, Belliard watched with the kind of appreciative gaze you might give a Rembrandt. One home run later -- this one in the fifth, with one out -- Belliard was the one receiving all the appreciation. His 100th career home run created a curtain-call moment.

"A lot of people have 700 or 500 [home runs]," Belliard said. "But for me, it feels good."

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