Nationals Beat Marlins Again for Fourth Straight Win

Nationals first baseman Adam Dunn is the man of the moment after his first-inning home run.
Nationals first baseman Adam Dunn is the man of the moment after his first-inning home run. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
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By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 6, 2009

Submerged at the bottom of the standings, laughed at and mocked, pummeled by blown leads and punch lines, favored by comedians and federal investigators alike, the Washington Nationals unquestionably waited too long to detach themselves from perception.

So at this point, perhaps few will notice the reality. This transformation comes too late to inspire leather-bound commemorative books. It comes too late, even, for the Nationals to commence a bold bid for fourth place in the National League East.

But here, cloaked in the obscurity of early August, the Washington Nationals, 36 games under .500, are no longer a dreadful baseball team. No way. Brazen optimists, if they're still aboard, might take it even a step further: The Nationals, with apologies to the 1962 Mets, have recovered a shred of their dignity.

The latest flirtation with professional baseball culminated Wednesday night at Nationals Park with a 5-4 victory over the Florida Marlins -- an opponent that had defeated Washington in 23 of 26 games before this series began. These Nationals, though, have a new bag of tricks, none of which involves creative tools to induce heartbreak. They've now won 10 of 16, including four in a row, and they're relishing a confidence that belies their spot in the standings.

"Winning fixes a lot of things, man," Adam Dunn said. "Take our record out, we're having fun."

As a final argument for their turning fortunes, the Nationals finished this victory -- their second in a row against Florida -- with a flourish of unlikelihoods. A bullpen that once ranked among the all-time poorest now has a 3.27 ERA since the all-star break, and here it finished things off with seven consecutive outs in a one-run game. Mike MacDougal clinched his 10th save by striking out Hanley Ramírez, the arch-nemesis who, in April or May, would have sooner hit a bases-empty three-run homer against the Nats than whiffed.

"We were dodging bullets out there all night, really, with a couple situations," interim manager Jim Riggleman said. "We weren't perfectly clean, but we played a pretty clean ballgame. It's good for them to realize that we can win these close games. It's been tough for us to win close games."

On Wednesday, Washington already had two homers -- from Ryan Zimmerman and Dunn -- by the time Florida starter Rick VandenHurk had thrown 10 pitches. John Lannan, the pitch-to-contact whiz, lasted six innings and allowed two runs, picking up his eighth win. The hot-swinging Cristian Guzmán (24 for 51 in his last 12 games) had a pair of RBI hits, including a two-out triple that created Washington's fifth run.

But that's the simple stuff, the elements that reflect performance. Another part of Washington's recent run, coinciding with Riggleman's tenure, is better identified in the delicate moments that distinguish wins from losses. Suffice to say, the brand of baseball trademarked exhibited from April to mid-July did not include these telltales:

-- Telltale No. 1: With Washington leading 2-1 in the third, Lannan was pitching to Cody Ross with the bases loaded, two outs. Ross worked a 3-1 count. On the next pitch, Ross squirted a grounder to Zimmerman, who muffed the play only long enough to set up a highlight. After the ball trickled off his glove, he chased it onto the infield grass, barehanded it and threw to first while falling forward. Big out.

-- Telltale No. 2: Nyjer Morgan, hit by a pitch in the bottom of the third, promptly initiated the full-scale chaos effect, dancing on first, drawing two pickoff throws and a pitchout, stealing the pitcher's attention, finally stealing second, then scoring when Guzmán doubled on a 3-1 pitch.

-- Telltale No. 3: Lannan, protecting a 5-1 lead in the fifth, faced a first-and-third, no-out situation and somehow closed the inning with two pitches. Ramírez hit into a 4-6-3 double play. Jorge Cantú grounded to short. Out-out, out. Cue organ music.

Some elements of adequacy, of course, have been there all season. Zimmerman and Dunn and Lannan all qualify. Zimmerman rode a 2-2 pitch down the opposite field line in the first, squirting it just beyond the 335 sign, his 22nd home run of the year. Dunn, one pitch later, marooned a 94 mph fastball to the second deck in right-center, his 29th home run of the year. Lannan, even without his A-plus form, followed the de rigueur formula: groundballs, quick innings.

But just for flair, the Nationals underwrote this victory with new elements, too. The bullpen that ranks last in the National League in saves and first in blown saves protected a lead, even after Sean Burnett shrank it from 5-2 to 5-4. The Nationals again committed no errors. The unlikeliest sentence of all: Thursday, they go for the series sweep.

"We definitely wouldn't have won these last two games earlier in the season," Lannan said. "Our attitude has changed, and it's a good sign. We're finishing this year strong, and we're not giving up, which is a great sign for the rest of this year and going into next year. We know we can compete. This year really didn't go our way, but we're going to finish strong."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company