Nationals End Four-Game Skid, Beat Pirates

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 3, 2009

PITTSBURGH, Aug. 2 -- Beginning around the seventh inning on Sunday afternoon, the first trickle of fans headed toward the exits, winding down the curlicue ramps in left field, streaming onto the streets outside PNC Park, snaking over the Roberto Clemente Bridge beyond center. And yes, it was still a close game. But the clouds were out, and two last-place teams shared the field. And more to the point: It was early August, the juncture where the baseball calendar exhales, and scheduled obligations between the Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Nationals unfold because they must.

So why, after Sunday's 5-3 Washington win, were several in the Nationals' clubhouse talking about urgency and necessity? How did big-game rhetoric -- "We needed that win," reliever Ron Villone said -- spring from such a listless environment? How on earth did the Nationals, at least for one afternoon, avoid the lethargy that tends to threaten teams at this time of year? And how on earth, more importantly, can they ward off that feeling as their season moves toward its endpoint?

"Nobody is going to settle in," interim manager Jim Riggleman said after the Nationals snapped their four-game losing streak. "I've always been very into that mode of thinking that you're bringing up. You can never let people feel too comfortable."

With 57 games to go, nothing about finishing strong is conclusive. But Sunday's contest lent some insight into the little ways Washington finds meaning in its games. Take Collin Balester, for instance. Three starts into his second trial in the Washington rotation, the 23-year-old right-hander has a better downward delivery, better poise and better results than he did in 2008.

Against the Pirates, he recorded 17 outs through the first 19 batters, helped by a few base running mistakes and a fourth-inning double play. Though he stalled with two outs in the fifth, giving up two consecutive singles and a walk, Balester exited having fulfilled his goal. His start felt like a step forward. More and more, he looks like a legitimate major league pitcher, not just some kid asked to imitate one.

"It was another good outing for me, I feel like," he said. "I had minimal damage and was able to get ahead of guys with my fastball."

The encouraging signs extended beyond Balester, though. Former Pirate Sean Burnett, brought into a jam with two on in the sixth, was greeted by boos -- "it got my adrenaline running," the lefty said -- and recorded a critical popup. Ryan Zimmerman went 2 for 3, lengthening his hot road trip. Elijah Dukes, in the second inning, slid hard into second base, flipping Delwyn Young, who was trying to turn a double play. Young never managed the throw and Washington knocked in a two-out run.

"That's how you play the game," Villone said. "Clean. Hard. That makes a difference. That was important, especially for a team that's been on and off and not finishing games."

Entering the seventh, the Nationals trailed 2-1, in large part because Pittsburgh starter Paul Maholm kept a firm grip on Washington's lineup. Maholm had faced only two above the minimum through six innings, helped by two double plays and two caught stealings.

But to start the seventh, Zimmerman pegged a single up the middle. That brought up Josh Willingham, Washington's hottest player since May. Willingham saw a 1-1 pitch cross the plate low and in, just where he wanted it. He swatted it to left, one row beyond the wall -- his 17th home run of the season. It gave the Nationals a 3-2 lead, which they would grow later in the inning with back-to-back doubles from Ronnie Belliard and Alberto González.

After the game, Willingham spoke about his season and his approach -- "to simplify everything," he said. For Willingham, a simple approach means a myopic perspective. He dwells on each at-bat the way some dwell on quarterly reports; he depends on the details, not the big picture.

That comes in handy in a season that has run out of its natural energy, and perhaps even exhausted its tension. First the Nationals had April, when every team starts fresh. Then they had the early-season freefall, with chaotic roster turnover. Then coaches' jobs were in jeopardy; then the manager's job was in jeopardy. More recently, Riggleman's insertion jolted the team's heart. And in the background, many players felt the looming uncertainty of the July 31 trade deadline; not knowing who would leave and who would stay generated its own buzz.

But now, all that is gone, and players such as Willingham have the rest of the season, there for whatever purpose they want. Willingham, asked if he hopes for a breakout season -- the sort of power numbers that could redefine his potential -- pondered for a half-beat and said: "I don't know. People always ask me, 'What kind of goals do you set for yourself as far as numbers?' And to be honest, I don't set goals. I've always been a guy who gets his at-bats and can be a 20, 25 home run guy, so that may be my only goal. Other than that, I just try to make sure I'm prepared to play every day. I mean, in this game, you can't control a whole lot of stuff, but that's one thing you can control."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company