On a 15-Run, 17-Hit Day, Nats' Bats Have Their Say

Washington Nationals Willie Harris, right, celebrates with teammate Odalis Perez after hitting a two-run home run in the fourth inning of a baseball game against the Atlanta Braves Sunday, July 20, 2008 in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Washington Nationals Willie Harris, right, celebrates with teammate Odalis Perez after hitting a two-run home run in the fourth inning of a baseball game against the Atlanta Braves Sunday, July 20, 2008 in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore) (John Bazemore - AP)
By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 21, 2008

ATLANTA, July 20 -- The numbers got so big Sunday, they refuted a rule of universal order, something so certain it belonged bold-lettered and highlighted in a physics textbook. By rule, after all, the Washington Nationals do not score 15 runs; they hadn't done so since fleeing Canada. By rule, the Nationals don't smash 17 hits; they hadn't accomplished as much all season.

But Sunday, at least for 3 hours 25 minutes, the offense broke all assumptions about what it can do, and in what direction it can head. By battering Atlanta, 15-6, in the series finale at Turner Field, the Nationals created a season high for hits and runs. Their lineup worked in harmony, with all but one starter, Cristian Guzmán, getting a hit. In short, they revealed the ceiling for their own achievement -- and it was higher than almost anybody expected.

If the Nationals can score 15 runs, well then surely Felipe López can go 3 for 4 (he did), and no doubt Willie Harris can reach base five times in a row (there were 29,320 witnesses), and heck, maybe it's even possible that Austin Kearns can score five runs in five at-bats (yes, this happened). And while we're at it, maybe Harris can contribute five RBI, and maybe Ryan Langerhans -- who started the series with a .188 batting average -- can bump that figure to .267, and maybe Jesús Flores can snap a month-long slump by reaching a new career-high for hits. By the fifth inning.

"You always know it's going to change," said Harris, who went 2 for 3 with three walks. "Once you start saying to yourself, 'Aw man, it's going to be like this all year; it's going to be a long season,' well, it's already a long season anyway. You just have to keep believing in your skills."

As Washington packed its bags for San Francisco, having taken two of three from Atlanta, nobody issued proclamations. Any fair view still framed this as an anomaly, nothing more. Still, in three games since the all-star break ended, Washington has scored 6 runs, 8 runs and 15 runs. Never in the team's previous 96 games had the offense scored six or more on three consecutive days.

Theories explaining such a surge depend on whom you ask, but the Nationals agree with near unanimity that Harris has provided much of the help. This series, playing against his former team, Harris went 7 for 12 with one home run -- a fourth-inning rope off Buddy Carlyle -- and seven RBI. Meanwhile, Kearns, 3 for 5 with his 100th career home run, is 16 for 49 (.327) since he returned from the disabled list after elbow surgery. With Roger Bernadina in Class AAA Columbus and Wily Mo Peña awaiting elbow surgery, no longer does Washington's outfield correlate so directly with outs.

"He's played great," Kearns said of Harris. "He's been a spark."

"He's hitting everything right on the button," first baseman Paul Lo Duca said of Kearns. "I know he was struggling this year, and he tried to play through the elbow. But he's healthy now, and that's showing."

Thus energized, Washington's lineup, which entered the game with a league-worst .241 average, showed some new patterns. One out into the third, the Nationals drove erratic Atlanta starter Jo-Jo Reyes from the game with a walk-hit-hit-hit-hit drumbeat. The last of those singles, from Langerhans, pulled Braves Manager Bobby Cox from the bench to yank Reyes. Turner Field roared with mock applause.

Two batters later, after another Harris walk, this one issued by Carlyle, Cox was the one roaring. Displeased with a ball call by home plate umpire Chris Guccione, Cox again shuffled onto the field, where he greeted Guccione with a long dance of hand gestures and shouting, the formal acceptance of his sixth ejection of the season.

Against Atlanta's first two pitchers, including right-hander Carlyle, 17 of Washington's first 28 batters reached. Take away Lo Duca's four outs in the first four innings, and the Nationals' lineup had a .708 on-base percentage.

By that point, the team had scored 12 runs, topping the previous season high of 11. Indeed, a team that had scored two or fewer runs 36 times this season scored three in the second, three in the third, six more in the fourth and two in the fifth.

"I know our offense is better than what it's shown in the first half. We'll have some better moments coming our way," Manager Manny Acta said. "It's only been two games, so I'm not gonna call this a trend. But they did take advantage of Reyes being a little off, and those are the kind of things you need to do. Hopefully everything continues to go our way."

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