Nats top Brewers, square mark at 5-5

By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 17, 2010

It is only 10 games into the season, but the Washington Nationals already reached a benchmark that eluded the franchise in recent years. They do not have a losing record, which had occurred through 10 games in every season other than the Nationals' inaugural year in Washington.

On Friday, when Stephen Strasburg started his second minor league game, the major league team awaiting his arrival registered a come-from-behind 5-3 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers at Nationals Park to reach .500 in an ongoing quest to show that the current group can at least remain competitive until a few high-profile players improve the pitching staff and bullpen later this season.

"I don't think it says much to us," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "We know we can play. We're going to go out there and win some ballgames. I think it might be surprising some other people. From spring training, we've been saying this is our year, we're going to play ball, and we're going to sneak up on some people."

The way the Nationals won would be surprising to those who have observed the team on a consistent basis during the recent seasons. Ryan Zimmerman was out of the starting lineup with a sore hamstring, and Adam Dunn was ejected after the first inning for arguing balls and strikes. That meant the Nationals were playing without their top two hitters, but they were able to win with timely hitting and sound pitching.

"What it really says is, if you pitch good, you got a chance anyway," Manager Jim Riggleman said. "We always want those guys in the lineup, but . . . a little bit of small ball we play there without those big guys in there, it's all for naught if we don't pitch good."

Even though John Lannan was the Nationals' opening day pitcher, it seemed his position as the team's ace was just a way to buy time before Strasburg trades his temporary Harrisburg, Pa., residence for a permanent one in the Washington area. Lannan appeared like a front-of-the-rotation starter on Friday, allowing only two runs in seven innings. He threw strikes on 67 of his 102 pitches, effectively locating his two-seam fastball while mixing in a curveball that helped stop the Brewers' lineup.

On most nights, Lannan's performance would put the Nationals in a strong position for a win. But Brewers pitcher Yovani Gallardo has developed into Milwaukee's ace at age 24, with a five-year, $30.1 million contract extension as evidence of the organization's confidence in his future. Gallardo held the Nationals to two runs in six innings but did not record a win because Lannan was the superior pitcher.

"It's huge, because we weren't doing a whole lot against Gallardo," left fielder Josh Willingham said of Lannan's performance. "Any time your starter holds them to two runs through seven innings, it gives you a great chance to win. That's all you can ask every night, is to have a chance to win late in the game."

Willingham led the Nationals' offense in Zimmerman and Dunn's absence, finishing 2 for 3 with a home run and two runs. He also made a diving catch in the eighth inning that resulted in a double play, limiting a potential game-breaking Brewers rally to one run.

The Nationals responded with a three-run surge in the bottom of the inning to take the lead. After Alberto Gonzalez hustled out an infield single, Willingham was hit by a pitch. Desmond laid down a sacrifice bunt to move runners to second and third, and Adam Kennedy drove them home with a single down the first base line. Kennedy quickly stole second and was driven in by Wil Nieves. The Nationals' bullpen, which did not have an earned run in the final two innings, closed the game.

The team struggled through spring training and faced the Philadelphia Phillies six times in the season's first two weeks, but Riggleman never lost his confidence in the current group. And the prevailing sentiment in the clubhouse after the game was that the team has not yet played to its potential even though it does not have a losing record through 10 games for the first time in five seasons.

"It just shows we have a lot of depth," Lannan said. "Unfortunately, [Dunn] got thrown out of the game early today and we haven't had [Zimmerman], but we've been able to win games. I don't think we've hit our stride yet, and the fact that we're 5-5, it shows a lot of promise for us."

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