By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 1, 2010; D01
HOUSTON -- On Monday morning, Manager Jim Riggleman made an adjustment that was, at once, both subtle and dramatic. Nyjer Morgan would move to second in the lineup, one spot down in the order and one symbolic leap.
For the first time as a member of the Washington Nationals, a span of 93 starts, Morgan started a game outside the leadoff spot. "Just to get him a little different feel," Riggleman said.
For the Nationals, change begat change in a 14-4 demolition of the Houston Astros before 34,704 at Minute Maid Park. After Houston ace Roy Oswalt was ejected in the third inning, the Nationals scored more runs Monday than in their past four games combined and matched their weekend output in San Diego with a nine-run seventh inning -- the biggest Nationals inning since baseball returned to D.C.
The cause of the offensive outburst -- opponent or lineup switch? -- can be debated, but dropping Morgan, for one day, seemed to have righted him and ignited the Nationals. Batting leadoff, Cristian Guzmán went 3 for 6 with a double and three runs. In his debut as a No. 2 hitter, Morgan went 3 for 4 with a sacrifice bunt, a walk, two steals and four runs.
Afterward, Morgan, who in May was batting .202 with a .262 on-base percentage and a .232 slugging percentage, shrugged at the lineup change. "There was nothing wrong with me from the hop, anyway," he said in a brief interview. "I felt fine. I was just in a little skid, and Skip wanted to shake up the lineup."
When Morgan saw the lineup card, though, he gave Riggleman the impression he preferred to hit in his customary spot.
"I don't think he was too happy about it, which didn't make me happy," Riggleman said. "I thought he should be feeling like, 'Yeah, okay, let's go.' I think it didn't sink in real quick for him that it was something good for him and something good for the ballclub. But that's okay."
Guzmán, for his part, didn't mind. "It doesn't matter for me," Guzmán said. "I do the same thing."
Their performance, for one day, appeased all sides. As Morgan and Guzmán wreaked havoc, Adam Dunn and Ryan Zimmerman showed how explosive the middle of the Nationals' order can be when given a chance to hit with men on base. Zimmerman, Dunn and Josh Willingham ranked fifth, eighth and third in the National League in OPS entering Monday.
Dunn smashed a three-run double off Oswalt in the third inning and finished with four RBI. Zimmerman went 2 for 2 with a double, his third home run in two days, two walks, a sacrifice fly and four RBI. The hitters in the top of the order clogged the bases, and the middle of the order drove them in. The Nationals' lineup, for a change, operated exactly how it should.
"The scary thing is, as good as we've been I think we can be a lot better," Zimmerman said. "If you ask Adam or Josh, I think they'd say the same thing. It's exciting. If we get rolling and start scoring some runs, the way our pitchers have been throwing, we're going to have a good team."
The victory served as a reminder of how far they've come. The Nationals evened their record at 26-26. If they lose 35 consecutive games, they'll be 26-61 -- the record that got Manager Manny Acta fired last year at the all-star break.
Before Monday, the Nationals had scored three runs or fewer in 15 of 28 games in May. In the morning, Riggleman sat in his office and said, "I think we're about ready to break out." No longer facing the elite staffs from the San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants but instead the 17-33 Astros, the Nationals fulfilled their manager's pregame prediction. The main beneficiary was rookie Luis Atilano, who, five days after beating Tim Lincecum, toppled Oswalt for his fifth win, the most of any Nationals starter.
Oswalt's day ended in the third inning, after Dunn drove in three runs with a double to right-center. Oswalt fired a ball outside to Willingham, the next batter. He stalked off the mound and yelled, apparently at himself.
Home plate umpire Bill Hohn took offense and peeled off his mask. Oswalt pointed at Hohn and said, "I'm not talking to you." Hohn instantly threw Oswalt out of the game.
The Nationals feasted on the Astros' bullpen, especially in their historic seventh inning. Backup catcher Carlos Maldonado delivered the blow that effectively ended the game, a three-run homer off the left field foul pole. The Nationals had 12 of their last 15 games decided by one or two runs. "It's nice to have an easy one," Zimmerman said.
They could finally relax at the end of a game, and that -- sparked by Guzmán and Morgan's new places -- may have been the best change of all.
"We'll have them there tomorrow," Riggleman said. "That's for sure."