By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 5, 2010; D01
Once consumed by losing, the Washington Nationals have avoided it enough this year that they've become preoccupied when it happens. The baseball news that rippled out of the District on Tuesday was Stephen Strasburg's promotion to Class AAA. The Nationals, stuck in a two-game skid in the afternoon, hardly cared.
"I'm more, like the ballclub, irritated that we lost the last couple more so than excited about the buzz," Manager Jim Riggleman said before the game. "I'm very happy our players are not thrilled with losing two out of three in Florida."
The Nationals continued a rare streak Tuesday night with their 6-3 victory over the Atlanta Braves before 17,098 at Nationals Park. Liván Hernández gutted out 123 pitches, the Nationals' offense mashed three solo home runs and their clip-n-save bullpen dashed another comeback. Added together, the Nationals preserved a mark of resilience.
By snapping their mini-slump, the Nationals remained one of only six major league teams yet to suffer a three-game losing streak this season. The other five -- the Twins, Yankees, Padres, Cardinals and Rays -- own baseball's five best records. The Nationals have not reached that level of the league's elite, but they nearly crept closer. If the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies had not pulled off dramatic, last-inning wins, they Nationals would have been tied for first place in the NL East.
"We had a 3-3 road trip, and the guys weren't happy," Riggleman said. "They didn't come out of Florida feeling like we had a good trip. They felt like we needed to win another ballgame or two."
On Tuesday, the Nationals won even though Hernández finally pitched like a 35-year-old with a mid-80s fastball. He carried into the game an absurd 0.87 ERA. He mystified another offense with his darting sinkers and glacial curveballs, allowing one earned run over 5 1/3 innings.
But the Braves made Hernández work from the start, sending seven batters to the plate and seeing 41 pitches in the first inning. Rookie Jason Heyward, 15 years Hernández's junior, lambasted a 3-2 sinker in the fourth that traveled some 430 feet, nearly reaching the back wall beyond the center field fence.
Hernández received a few crucial breaks. In the third inning, with the score tied at one, Chipper Jones stood on second with two outs. Troy Glaus rocketed a ball to the right-center gap, a sure run. Roger Bernadina, whose first-inning error had enabled the game's first run, never conceded. He bolted for the gap and dove, his body horizontal when the ball nestled into his glove.
In the clubhouse afterward, a few players watched the replay. Someone remarked it must have hurt when he landed.
"Not at all," Bernadina said.
Ian Desmond, the rookie shortstop who keeps strengthening his hammerlock on the starting job, provided most of the Nationals' offense. He twice drove in a run that put the Nationals ahead. In the third, after Josh Willingham's solo home run, Desmond singled home Iván Rodríguez.
In the fifth, Desmond walked to the plate, leading off the inning. During the previous inning, Desmond noticed Kenshin Kawakami struggling with his curveball. Desmond figured Kawakami would throw him a curve to start off the inning, trying to recapture the pitch.
"I guessed right," Desmond said.
Desmond roped a home run to left-center field, answering Heyward's blast and giving the Nationals a 3-2 lead. With a lead after Desond's homer, the Nationals could afford to leave Hernández -- who was on deck during Desmond's at-bat -- in the game despite having thrown 113 pitches. He flew out, then recorded the first out of the sixth inning before walking the next batter and leaving to applause.
"He barely broke a sweat in that, whatever it was, 200 pitches he threw," Riggleman said with a wry smile.
Sean Burnett served as the bridge to Tyler Clippard, who retired five batters with typical dominance -- one hit, two strikeouts. The Nationals extended their lead to four, thanks in part to Adam Dunn's mammoth solo homer. It made possible a night off for closer Matt Capps. Instead, Miguel Batista surrendered a run in the ninth and Riggleman summoned Capps. Four pitches and one double play later, Capps had sealed his 11th save in 11 tries.
During the late innings, only a technical glitch marred the victory. The enormous video board twice went black, and the public address announcer had to declare the count after each pitch. It had been fixed by the end of the night. This year, it's harder to keep the Nationals down.
"I told you in spring training," Hernández said. "We got a good team."