By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 20, 2010; D01
Craig Stammen bolts out of the dugout before every inning, his sprint to the mound so fast he is, for a brief moment, the only player on the field. He hurries by nature, and before Monday night, Stammen had to think about the worst outing of his career for four days. "I was stewing pretty bad," Stammen said. "I couldn't wait to get out there."
On Monday, Stammen took his turn steering the Washington Nationals toward shedding last year's misery, leading them to a 5-2 victory over the Colorado Rockies before 11,623, the smallest announced crowd ever at Nationals Park. Stammen allowed two runs on five hits in eight innings while striking out five, atoning for his last outing with help from Willie Harris's four RBI.
With their fourth win in five games sending them to 7-6, the Nationals face the new sensation of not having to fight uphill to reach respectability. Last year, the Nationals earned their seventh win on May 4, when they improved to 7-17 and sat seven games out of first place. This year, they have faced reigning playoff teams in half their games and still have managed their best start since 2005, their first year in the District.
"When you are playing those guys tough, it has to seep in," Manager Jim Riggleman said. "Whether it's a tangible thing or whether it's subconscious, it's got to seep in that we're a legitimate major league ballclub. And let's just go win some ballgames, because who knows what's going to happen."
The Nationals quickly erased the sting from their loss Sunday, which included their starter not recording an out and the team allowing 10 runs in the first inning. They actually may have gathered momentum by scoring seven runs and scaring the Milwaukee Brewers.
"Even when we were down the other day by 10 runs, we felt like we could get back in the game," Harris said. "And we did. The Nats are going to come at you for nine innings.
"It's just a different feeling. The chemistry was better in spring training when we were losing. People care about each other in here. It shows."
Harris broke a scoreless tie with a three-run homer in the second inning, and the Nationals improved to 7-0 when their starting pitcher lasts at least five innings. Against the Philadelphia Phillies last Wednesday, Stammen retired only four batters and squandered leads of three runs and two runs. On Monday night, he lowered his ERA more than seven runs, from 15.63 to 8.16.
Stammen's improvement owed to his bucking against his natural instinct, which is to throw harder. On Monday, he relaxed, a decision spurred by a conversation with Liván Hernández. On Saturday, he watched Hernández, 35, throw a shutout despite throwing fastballs in the mid-80s. The next day, he spoke with Hernández in the outfield.
Hernández reminded Stammen of the round of golf they had played together back in spring training. Hernández explained to Stammen that he could always hit the ball straight when he swung easy. "How I play golf," Hernández told him, "is how I pitch."
Stammen got the message. He was a pitcher Monday night, Riggleman said, not a thrower, as he had been against the Phillies. By taking some steam off his pitches, Stammen allowed himself to control the ball better.
"He throw the ball down today," Hernández said. "Perfect. He's got stuff as good anybody on the staff. His slider disappears."
In the fourth inning, it seemed Stammen might be headed for another early finish. He walked Brad Hawpe on four straight balls to load the bases with no outs. Pitching coach Steve McCatty came out to talk with Stammen as bullpen coach Jim Lett handed Jesse English a ball in the bullpen.
Stammen induced a grounder to third from Miguel Olivo, and Ryan Zimmerman stepped on the bag and fired home, but Iván Rodríguez dropped the throw as he tried to make a sweeping tag. Stammen still needed two outs to escape. Ian Stewart smoked a line drive, but right at second baseman Adam Kennedy. He caught it and flipped to Ian Desmond covering second base. Stammen had been saved. "This game is part luck, too," Stammen said.
Once he extricated himself from the jam, Stammen cruised. He allowed one hit and faced the minimum over his final four innings. After Carlos González flied out to end the eighth on Stammen's 100th pitch, Stammen knew his work was done. Teammates and coaches waited on the top step of the dugout, and Stammen smiled as he left the mound, walking slowly.