By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 24, 2010; D01
Alone in the Washington Nationals' clubhouse, Luis Atilano lounged on a couch late Friday afternoon and watched television through thick, black-framed glasses. He relaxed as if this was normal. But in three hours -- or about seven years, one trade and a major elbow surgery after he became a professional pitcher -- Atilano would become a major leaguer.
This was just another game for Adam Dunn, whose personality won't allow for panic, even when mired in a nasty slump. He considered his dismal start and shrugged. As his batting average shrunk, Dunn kept his telling his manager he felt great in the batter's box.
Friday night meant different things to Atilano and Dunn, the dual powers behind the Nationals' 5-1 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers. Atilano allowed one run in six innings, earning a win in his major league debut. Dunn shed his season-opening dry spell, blasting two mammoth home runs. Behind Atilano and Dunn, the Nationals started another series with a postseason participant with a victory and jumped back above .500, to 9-8.
Atilano, a native of Santurce, Puerto Rico, began the night pitching to Iv?n Rodr?guez, one of his country's legends. He ended it talking to a television reporter in front of the Nationals' dugout. John Lannan emerged from the clubhouse with a towel full of shaving cream and smeared it in his face.
For a 24-year-old, Atilano has had a long career. The Braves drafted him with a first-round compensatory pick in 2003, then traded him to the Nationals in 2006, shortly after he underwent Tommy John surgery, for Daryle Ward. Atilano began 2008, his first full post-surgery season, with Class AA Harrisburg, putting up so-so performances.
"He's made incredible strides since that time," said Doug Harris, the Nationals' director of player development. "When you're 24, you start to mature. He has a comfort level that I haven't seen from him in the past."
When Jason Marquis headed to the disabled list on Wednesday, Atilano had his chance. Atilano has always been a fastball-change-up pitcher, his fastball darting with a natural sink.
From the first batter, Atilano stuck to his strength. Rafael Furcal grounded to Dunn at first, and he flipped to Atilano for the out. Dunn patted Atilano on the back. Atilano slapped Dunn's back with his glove. His career had started.
Dunn entered the game with just four hits in his previous 23 at-bats, stuck in a season-opening slump that left his dismal slugging percentage at .294 -- 83rd in the National League. Dunn, though, believed himself close to snapping his skid. In meetings with Manager Jim Riggleman, Dunn would tell him: "I feel great. I'm seeing the ball good. I'm just not pulling the trigger on strikes and making some bad decisions up there."
In the fourth inning, Dunn pulled that trigger. Charlie Haeger floated a 1-0 knuckleball over the plate's heart, and Dunn unloaded one of the longest home runs in the brief history of Nationals Park. He launched a star-scraping fly ball that, once it completed its orbit, smacked off the facade of the third deck above the Nationals' bullpen. The solo blast gave Nationals a 2-1 lead.
Atilano set down the Dodgers in order in the fifth, and in the sixth he faced another jam, the most pressure-packed moment of his baseball life. Blake DeWitt doubled, his line drive skipping past a dive from Nyjer Morgan to put runners on second and third with two outs. As much as his ability, Atilano's nerve would be tested.
Harris watched Atilano's last start with Syracuse, a win over Lehigh Valley. Atilano allowed eight hits and a walk, confronting base runners in each inning, but he surrendered only one run. "He was very poised," Harris said. "In the past there would have been a little more panic. He was just very calm."
Atilano proved he could stay composed against both the IronPigs and the Dodgers. He induced a hard groundball to short by A.J. Ellis. He started at Cristian Guzman as he fielded and fired to first, and he pumped his fist repeatedly once the ball settled in Dunn's glove.
The lead preserved, Dunn extended it. Guzman reached on a two-out error by Rafael Furcal, whose wide throw pulled James Loney off first base. Up came Dunn. This time with the count 1-0, Haeger tried to sneak a fastball by him. Dunn crunched another deep fly to right field that landed in the right field seats. The Nationals led 4-1, and Atilano was in line for his first win on his first night as a major leaguer.