Nats Diversify Attack in Sweep of Rockies

Nats reliever Joel Hanrahan celebrates with catcher Jesús Flores after putting the finishing touches on a win in the first game of a doubleheader.
Nats reliever Joel Hanrahan celebrates with catcher Jesús Flores after putting the finishing touches on a win in the first game of a doubleheader. (By David Zalubowski -- Associated Press)
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By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 8, 2008

DENVER, Aug. 7 -- On Thursday, both ways worked. Pounding worked; poking worked. The Nationals won an early game with the kind of offensive power they demonstrate far too rarely. They won a later game with the small ball -- singles and sprinting -- that befits their current build.

By sweeping a doubleheader from Colorado at Coors Field, the Nationals -- 6-3 winners in both games -- had just large enough a sample size to demonstrate what they already have and what they need more of. Since team management reformatted the roster one week ago, Washington has won six of seven. More so than at any previous point this year, its lineup reflects a look the franchise will retain in 2009, maybe beyond. Finally, you can see Washington's anatomical makeup. And for now, hitting coach Lenny Harris said: "We've got to play small ball. That's the kind of club we've got."

Want power? Game No. 1 provided a tantalizing glimpse of the one aspect Washington most often lacks. Lastings Milledge took the team home run lead by clubbing two long balls, including a 442-foot screamer that landed on the left field concourse beyond some 20 rows of seats. Among the team's 10 hits, half went for extra bases. The Nationals scored their first five runs, in order, because of a homer, a double, a triple and a homer. All that from a team that ranks last in the majors in extra-base hits.

Want speed? At least for the remainder of this season, the Nationals will need to win with the style that carried them in the second game. They smacked 12 hits -- and 10 of them were singles. The staccato offense included stolen bases from Pete Orr and Emilio Bonifacio. Ryan Langerhans walked three times. The Nationals generated the runs in their four-run second with a single, a single, a sprinter-quick double from Willie Harris, a walk and another single.

On this day, both methods resulted in the same endpoint. Big hits from a few, small hits from many -- it didn't matter. Jason Bergmann (2-8), with seven innings and one run, won the first game. Odalis Pérez (5-8), with six innings and two runs, won the second. For both pitchers, but especially Bergmann -- burdened all season by a flailing Washington offense -- the presence of actual runs mattered far more than their origin.

The makeup of the current team is worth inspecting, though, especially because Washington began Thursday with its most potent batting order of the season. Bonifacio, Cristian Guzmán, Ryan Zimmerman, Milledge and Jesús Flores all started in Game 1. All figure to hold spots in next year's Opening Day lineup. All but Guzmán will be 24 or younger. That's a nucleus. With Bonifacio in particular -- "electric," Harris called him -- the group has speed. But it's a nucleus that cannot contend, team management agrees, until it becomes more powerful.

"We need more power," General Manager Jim Bowden said. "In particular we need more left-handed power in a perfect world. We're looking for trades to try to accomplish that."

Washington entered Thursday with some of the most unproductive power numbers in the league. The team ranked 14th in the National League in home runs and last in the majors in OPS (on-base plus slugging). Of the 119 players who entered the day with at least 10 home runs, only one, Ronnie Belliard, is a National. Part of that is attributable to injuries. Part reflects on what the team is still missing.

"If you are about 14th in slugging or home runs total" in the National League, Manager Manny Acta said, "obviously you need some more power. We do need more power."

But on Thursday, Washington also demonstrated why improving its power is not just a matter of player acquisition. When young players learn at-the-plate patience, counts shift in their favor. When they wait on pitches, they get pitches to crush. And that's what explains Milledge's two home runs, part of an incendiary week in which he's hit four in six games.

In the fifth inning against Game 1 starter Jeff Francis, Milledge waited out five pitches, the first three of them balls, before pouncing on an inside fastball. That swing turned into one of the longest home runs of his career. One inning later, he again got ahead in the count, hitting a 2-0 fastball to left.

Said Acta: "That's how the power will come, when he gets himself on counts like that where you can get your pitch and drive it instead of chasing pitches out of the zone."

Milledge, who thinks he can develop into a power hitter capable of 20-plus home runs every year, has been working on such an approach, even when it's felt uncomfortable.

"It was tough," he said. "It's something now, even if you get ahead in the count, there's no guarantee you'll get your pitch. Today I got pitches that were in my hot spot. And to be a great hitter, you have to capitalize on those consistently, day in and day out."

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