Nationals Win With Patience and Timely Hitting

Elijah Dukes (three hits, three RBI) breaks his bat on an RBI single during the Nationals' five-run sixth inning.
Elijah Dukes (three hits, three RBI) breaks his bat on an RBI single during the Nationals' five-run sixth inning. (By Luis Alvarez -- Associated Press)
By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 5, 2009

As Washington second baseman Anderson Hernández walked to first for the second time in the bottom of the sixth inning, it was easy to forget the miscues that earlier had given last night's game a feel similar to many of the preceding contests at Nationals Park this season.

Several plays the home team should have made went unrecorded. Several opportunities the Nationals should have seized went unclaimed.

But as Hernandez trotted to first, left fielder Adam Dunn trotted home. He represented the fifth run Washington scored that inning, the cushion to a lead Washington had just created and the eraser to misadventures that had come before. A comeback sparked by plate discipline and timely hitting was the focus inside the Nationals' clubhouse after their 9-4 win over Houston. As well it should have been.

A team with just seven wins in early May must cling to promise, rather than to lingering fundamental flaws. Franchise cornerstone Ryan Zimmerman tallied four hits, which extended his hitting streak to 22 games. Center fielder Elijah Dukes recorded three hits and as many RBI.

"Today we kind of put up our runs late in the game and we didn't stop," Dukes said. "That's the most important part."

Yes, the manner in which Washington closed out the Astros last night was worth cherishing, indeed. It was almost enough to make the several thousand fans who sat through the constant mist and occasional drizzle forget the front end of their team's performance.

Nationals starter John Lannan had speedy Houston leadoff hitter Kazuo Matsui picked off in the first inning, but first baseman Nick Johnson's throw to second drilled Matsui in the back of the helmet.

Matsui scored on an RBI double by Lance Berkman. As the ball exploded off Berkman's bat, Dukes took two steps inward, then quickly retreated. The ball fell just over his head.

Houston third baseman Jeff Keppinger led off the fifth with a bloop single that landed just in front of a slowly charging Dukes and just behind shortstop Cristian Guzmán. Neither player called off the other, and consequently, neither player recorded a catch that should have been made. The Astros proceeded to score three runs that inning.

But as Houston center fielder Michael Bourn looped around second base and surged to third, it was easy to forget Dukes's previous miscues. He rifled the ball to Hernández, who completed the relay to Zimmerman in time to record the out.

"We have made so much of our defense not playing up to our capabilities, and that was a key play in the game," Manager Manny Acta said. "That could have changed the whole game and expanded a lead there."

The Nationals cut a four-run deficit in half in the bottom of the fifth. The heart of Washington's order -- Zimmerman, Dunn and Dukes -- was responsible for two hits, a walk and an RBI. More importantly, the trio established a pattern that would be replicated one inning later when 11 Nationals hitters came to bat.

After a walk by Johnson loaded the bases in the decisive sixth, a walk by Zimmerman scored a run. A single by Dunn scored two more. Dukes added another single, another RBI.

"We just had good at-bats tonight," Zimmerman said. "I think that's the most impressive thing. We got our hits and stuff, but we took a lot of walks and didn't swing at their pitches even though they were close. It's kind of a sense of us maturing as a team."

The maturation was not limited to Washington's offense. Relief pitcher Joel Hanrahan entered the game in the seventh with a three-run lead, exactly the type of situation that had led him to be removed recently from his role as the team's closer.

But as Hanrahan retired the side in order before giving way to Garrett Mock, it was easy to forget that this was a man currently deemed unfit to handle ninth innings. For at least one night, Hanrahan and the Nationals concentrated on the efforts that produced an end result more to their liking.

"We've had sizable leads before disappear on us, so anytime they go out there and get guys out and throw strikes, it's encouraging," Acta said. "Because that's all we're asking: Go after guys and be aggressive and let them hit you and let our defense work."

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