Nats' Balanced Effort Yields 4th Win in Row

Cristian Guzmán slides home safely. "Everybody has been swinging the bat real well," Willie Harris said.
Cristian Guzmán slides home safely. "Everybody has been swinging the bat real well," Willie Harris said. (By Nick Wass -- Associated Press)
By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 30, 2008

Seven: Odalis Pérez swung his head back, as if inhaling, just as he said the word. Seven, on this night, meant run support -- the kind that almost no pitcher messes up. So Pérez, standing in front of his clubhouse stall after yesterday's game, talked about seven as if it was a gift.

"You know, for any pitcher, you see three or four runs, you're happy with that," he started. "So for me, to see three or four or five or six or seven runs, it's a lot to work with. I'm not gonna allow seven or 10. No, no, no. Three or four, and I still can get a win."

More than at any previous point this season, seven runs -- just like the 10 hits that accompanied them -- has become an offensive finish line that the Washington Nationals know how to reach. Their improved offense, the hallmark of the past month, was again on display last night at Nationals Park, where they defeated the Atlanta Braves, 7-3, winning their fourth consecutive game with the sort of top-to-bottom lineup balance that has been absent much of the season.

The Nationals scored their seven runs on a total of six scoring plays -- five hits, one sacrifice fly. They hit no home runs, but five players produced RBI. Four of Washington's runs came with two outs. The runs came in four different innings. Four players had multi-hit games. To roughly translate: The Nationals scored with little steps from almost everybody.

"Timely hitting. Clutch hitting," said leadoff man Willie Harris, who walked three times. "Everybody has been swinging the bat real well, and I think that's been the key to our success the last couple games."

This month in particular, the Nationals have sustained a decent offense. In their 27 games during August, the Nationals have reached or exceeded 10 hits 13 times. In the 108 games they played before this month, they reached double digits just 35 times. But in the last two games, they've ramped up their forcefulness. They knocked Los Angeles pitcher Clayton Kershaw from the game in 2 1/3 innings on Thursday. Yesterday, Atlanta starter Jorge Campillo was chased after 3 2/3 -- and eight hits. He had already thrown 86 pitches.

"What I can say is, some guys are getting healthy, and we're getting some guys back, and also some guys who've come back are getting into a rhythm a little bit," Manager Manny Acta said. "This is obviously something where we're not going to be scoring seven runs every single day, but it does help, and I know these guys are better than they have shown."

Washington took the lead in the first when Cristian Guzmán -- "En fuego," Harris called him -- doubled against the low part of the right-center field wall, and Ryan Zimmerman followed with a soft single above the second baseman. Then, inning by inning, the Nationals kept rolling. Two more extra base hits, a double from Elijah Dukes, a triple from Emilio Bonifacio, enabled two more runs in the second. By the time Washington scored twice more in the fourth, Pérez, too, had found his groove.

The night had started badly for the Washington left-hander, and the fans at Nationals Park started jeering Pérez (6-10) before he gave up even a run. Seven balls in a row was enough to bring out the boos. As it worked out, though, Pérez enlisted this fit of wildness as nothing more than a dramatic device. When two Atlanta batters reached with one out in the first -- one via a Ronnie Belliard error at first, one via a single -- Pérez walked the next batter on four pitches. Yunel Escobar came up, and Pérez promptly resumed his ineffectiveness: 1-0, 2-0, 3-0. When he threw a gimme fastball down the middle for a strike, mock applause hailed the accomplishment.

But from that moment on, Pérez became a different pitcher, and the fans stayed mostly quiet and watched the left-hander mock Atlanta's lineup.

Escobar bounced into an inning-ending double play. Atlanta had pushed Pérez to a breaking point, but scored nothing.

Boosted by that escape, Pérez allowed just one hit in the next three innings. He worked well into the seventh, too, encountering only a fifth-inning hiccup (which included a Greg Norton pinch-hit two-run homer), and by the time Pérez exited, having thrown 95 pitches, the win belonged to him as much as it belonged to Washington's offense.

This was the fifth quality start in his last six.

"He did a good job," Acta said. "He just got a little bit careless in the fifth but other than that, he looked like he was in control the entire time, and worked out of that jam in the first inning, and gave us six-plus, which is huge."

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