Nats Top Phillies for First Win of the Season

By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 17, 2009

The news scrolled across the marquee of a baseball highlights show playing in the Washington Nationals' clubhouse after last night's game against the Philadelphia Phillies. After 11 days, eight games and a roster shakeup, the Nationals secured their first win.

When the Nationals built a lead in the first inning and narrowly nurtured it throughout much of the game, the thought of the season-opening seven-game losing streak crept into mind. Not until they added runs to build the eventual 8-2 final score did they feel confident that the dubious distinction would come to an end.

"We've had leads in games before this year, and then something, you make an error, give them an extra out, someone would hit a homer," said outfielder Josh Willingham, whose first hit as a National was a seventh-inning, pinch-hit home run last night. "It's good to get to that lead, but that's why you play nine innings. And we played nine innings tonight."

Around the clubhouse, the game was dubbed a team win. Starting pitcher Shairon Martis provided the Nationals their first quality start of the season, ending a drought that explained why the Nationals are last in the standings. They received a hit from eight of the nine spots in the order, and their four home runs were a testimony to the team's bolstered offense. And the bullpen did not allow a late-inning rally from the Phillies, instead keeping them hitless in the game's final three innings.

"I like the fact that it was a pretty clean, nice ballgame," Manager Manny Acta said. "We played well, everyone did their thing, and then we gave the guys some breathing room when we hit those home runs. I know we're going to be able to score some runs. We finally have the depth in our lineup where we can stretch it a little bit."

When Acta prepares for opponents, he pinpoints opposing batters that worry him when they come to the plate. Acta needs the heart of his order -- and specifically slugger Adam Dunn -- to fill that role for the Nationals.

Dunn satisfied Acta's request when he turned on a first-inning inside fastball and crushed Joe Blanton's 2-2 pitch into the second deck of Nationals Park for a three-run home run. It was the exact type of hit the Nationals anticipated upon signing Dunn to a $20 million deal during the offseason.

"I don't look it at like that," Dunn said of standing out in the middle of the order. "But it was good to give [Martis] some leeway and let him settle down, and he proved, with a lead, he can shut teams down. If he can shut that offense down, he could shut any offense down."

Acta praised the poise of Martis, 22, who is emblematic of the youth movement in the Nationals' rotation. Acta cautioned, however, against assessing the rotation before it cycled through a few times.

Martis provided the best outing in a season devoid of good outings. He held a Phillies lineup that averaged eight runs in its previous three games scoreless in the first three innings. He threw 19 of 26 first-pitch strikes, part of a personal initiative to attack hitters instead of trying to finagle around them.

"To have a pitcher come out like that, and give us six quality innings like that and be confident, I think it's just what we needed," said Ryan Zimmerman, who finished 2 for 4 with a run and an RBI. "We knew our pitching is young. The first week, they did some things I know they didn't want to do, I know they weren't planning on doing, but as long as we continue hitting the ball, I think over the long haul our pitching staff will do better than what they did last week."

The bullpen took over for Martis when the game was 3-2 in the seventh inning, and the Nationals added five more runs -- including home runs by Willingham, Elijah Dukes and Alberto González -- to secure the first win of 2008. A team that was "pressing," according to Dunn, can now rest relieved that a single April win does not merit its own news on a scrolling marquee.

"It's fun when guys can do that," Acta said. "It's only one game, but it's fun and hopefully it can carry over."

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