Washington Nationals halt skid against Braves thanks to Craig Stammen's strong start

Craig Stammen helped the Nationals win their fifth road game in 26 tries in his return to the majors.
Craig Stammen helped the Nationals win their fifth road game in 26 tries in his return to the majors. (John Bazemore/associated Press)
By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 30, 2010

ATLANTA -- When Stephen Strasburg made his inevitable ascension to the major leagues, someone had to become a minor leaguer again. The Washington Nationals chose Craig Stammen, their third starter out of spring training. Late Tuesday afternoon, Stammen reappeared in their clubhouse. Pitching coach Steve McCatty noticed Stammen and smiled, shook his hand and said, "I'm glad you're here, brother."

For one night, Stammen saved the Nationals in a manner even Strasburg has not. In a 7-2 victory over the first-place Atlanta Braves, Stammen returned to the major leagues by pitching 7 1/3 innings for his first win since April 19. Before 19,045 at Turner Field, the Nationals snapped a five-game losing streak and won only their fifth road game in 26 tries with perhaps their most complete game this season. They played with winning staples they have recently misplaced -- errorless defense, timely hitting, sharp base running.

"That's about as clean a game as we've played in a while," Manager Jim Riggleman said. "That's kind of what we did the first month of the season. For some reason, it just got away from us. It's encouraging to remind ourselves we can play like that."

Most of all, the Nationals won with Stammen's dominant pitching. He allowed two runs on five hits and two walks and even added a sacrifice fly to drive in the Nationals' final run. Stammen peppered the lower half of the strike zone with sinkers and cutters and induced 14 groundouts while striking out four.

In his first 12 starts of the season, Stammen went 1-2 with a 5.43 ERA. He had an 11.25 ERA in the first inning of his starts. He did not win any of his final nine. On June 8, when the Nationals summoned Strasburg, they sent Stammen to Class AAA Syracuse. He believed he belonged in the big leagues, and he had to prove it all over again.

"You're going to be spitting fire," Stammen said. "I wasn't happy about it. I was going to do everything I could to not make it a long stay there."

In the minors for the first time in more than a year, Stammen focused on "getting back to who I was and how I got to the big leagues," he said. He pitched with more aggression, refined his cutter and sinker and regained comfort with his mechanics. He allowed five earned runs in 20 innings and, in one of his three starts, came within one out of throwing a seven-inning no-hitter.

"Once you've had success here, you feel like you can continue to do that," Stammen said. "It's in the bottle. You just got to find it, get it out."

In the fifth, Martin Prado's two-out walk loaded the bases. Stammen had purposely pitched around him -- "I felt like I had the stuff to get [Melky] Cabrera out," Stammen said. Stammen fired a low sinker, out of the strike zone. Cabrera rolled a groundout, Stammen's 10th in just five innings, to Cristian Guzmán at second.

"That was the game right there, basically," Stammen said.

Stammen had a lead to protect because of a desperately needed offensive breakout. Alberto González, starting for the third consecutive game but for only the sixth time since May began, went 4 for 4 with a run and an RBI single. ("I was so happy," Gonzalez said.) Josh Willingham sealed it with a two-run home run in the seventh, the first over-the-fence home run reliever Peter Moylan had yielded since the Ryan Zimmerman walk-off homer that christened Nationals Park.

Guzmán, batting seventh in a reconfigured lineup, ignited the Nationals' pivotal fifth-inning rally with the kind of subtle, aggressive play they have sorely lacked. He walked against Derek Lowe, who had shut them out, to lead off. González followed with a single up the middle, and Guzmán eschewed a routine play and bolted around second base.

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