The Washington Times - April 19, 2012, 12:22AM

The Washington Nationals won their 10th game of the season Wednesday night. In half of those wins, they’ve taken the lead in the eighth inning or later. 

When you think about it, that’s a pretty ridiculous statistic. 

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Now, it would be remiss to begin this post without mentioning the fact that the Nationals’ starting pitchers have an ERA of 1.65 through the first 13 games. The only reason the Nationals have been in a position to make those comebacks is because of that starting pitching staff. As one Astros beat reporter noted Wednesday night: “Everybody flipped out about Davey Johnson saying the Nats’ top three was as talented as the Phillies’, right?”

So, sure, their pitching has allowed them to stay in close games late even though their offense has sputtered a bit to start. But the Nationals offense deserves some credit for those wins, too. When they’ve gotten into opposing team’s bullpens, they’ve taken advantage.

“Bullpens have swing-and-miss pitchers,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmermann, who singled after Danny Espinosa walked in the eighth inning Wednesday night to give the Nationals two men on with no outs.

“As you see them more, and as you get more at-bats, you kind of start to lay off those at-bats. Those teams, the Red Sox and the Yankees and the Cardinals and the teams that go to the playoffs every year, it’s hard to get those last nine outs against them because they don’t swing at balls. I think we’re starting to learn that and making them come to us a little more.”

It’s an interesting take, and the Nationals have dramatic stats to support that approach.

In innings one through seven this season, as a team, the Nationals are hitting .236 with a .310 on-base percentage and a .324 slugging percentage.

In the eighth inning, which is almost always an inning pitched by a team’s bullpen, the Nationals have hit .286 with a .397 on-base percentage and a .402 slugging percentage. They’ve walked nine times in the eighth inning alone this year. 

The scouting on opposing teams’ bullpens — of which the Nationals have faced a few that likely won’t find themselves among the best in the league at years end — hasn’t changed much, Zimmerman said. But the maturity of the Nationals has. The Nationals’ approach has.

“For us to scrap and get those hits and get on base late in the game and continually have good at-bats at the end of the game (is huge),” Zimmerman said, highlighting Espinosa’s leadoff walk. “Our seventh, eighth and ninth-inning at-bats this whole year have been tough. As we mature a little more… as we continue to learn about the game and get better, it’s just going to continue each game to get better and better.

“And those are the at-bats that win or lose you games.”

The Nationals have beat up on the bullpens of the Cubs, Mets, Reds and Astros thus far this season, which isn’t exactly like taking down the back-end of the Atlanta Braves bullpen or toppling Mariano Rivera and the New York Yankees, but as they continue to round into the team they want to be and think they can be, it’s important.

“I like how the team is playing,” said catcher Wilson Ramos, who drove in the winning run Wednesday night with a sacrifice fly to center field, a “good pitch to hit a home run” on that he said he just missed.

“We’re playing nine innings. That’s the most important thing because we’re never putting our heads down. We were losing in the eighth inning and everybody was staying with their head up, saying ‘Let’s go.’ And we did.”

The Nationals won their fifth one-run game of the 2012 season Wednesday night by allowing the Astros bullpen to make its own mistakes. In 2011, they were an even 27-27 in one-run contests. For this Nationals team to get where it wants to go, winning those games will be integral, however they do it. 

“I think we understand we’re not going to win every one-run game,” Zimmerman said. “We’d like to have a couple of five or six-run wins every now and again. That would be nice, too. But it’s good. It gives us all those pressure at-bats and how not to get out of the moment. 

“The seventh, eighth and ninth innings these last couple games, we’ve done a great job of making the pitchers come to us and not getting out of our plan. It’s definitely a good learning experience for down the road.”