- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 13, 2005

DENVER — There was no hint of uncertainty in Frank Robinson’s eyes as he sat behind his desk at Coors Field yesterday afternoon and spelled out the task facing his Washington Nationals this weekend against the Colorado Rockies.

“Win two. It’s a must,” the manager said. “We don’t have to sweep this series, but anything less than two [wins] is a bad series.”

Such is the predicament the Nationals have put themselves because of a disastrous month. They can no longer afford even the tiniest of slip-ups lest they fall even farther back in the National League wild-card race.

“We’ve got to pick it up,” Robinson said. “We have to start winning series.”

The Nationals took the first step toward achieving that goal last night. They rode a three-run first and a standout pitching performance from Esteban Loaiza to a 4-2 victory over the Rockies before 28,598 at Coors Field.

“This time of the season, every game is important,” Vinny Castilla said. “We know this team’s in a race. We know there’s 50 games left, and we’re not out of this.”

Step two comes tonight, when Washington tries to ensure only its second winning series in 11 tries. It sounds like such a minimal accomplishment, taking two of three from the worst team in the league, but it would be no small feat for this floundering ballclub.

Last night’s win was significant in its own right. Thanks to the Atlanta Braves’ 8-0 loss against the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Nationals (60-55) moved back within 5-1/2 games of the NL East leaders. They still trail the wild-card leading Houston Astros (comeback winners last night over the Pittsburgh Pirates) by three games.

For the third time in four games, Robinson tried Brandon Watson at the top of the lineup. The rookie outfielder still needs some polishing (he’s hitless in his last 10 at-bats), but he provides a presence in the leadoff spot the Nationals have lacked all season.

Watson showed just how important a good leadoff man can be last night. He drew a five-pitch walk in his first trip, then raced to third on Jose Vidro’s single to right. Nick Johnson laced a double to left-center, scoring Watson with the first run, then joined Vidro in scoring on Jose Guillen’s single up the middle.

Not since July 23 had the Nationals scored more than one first-inning run, a span of 17 games.

The Nationals kept the pressure on Rockies starter Jamey Wright. Brian Schneider, who has raised his batting average over .290, roped a fourth-inning double that managed to score the hobbling Castilla all the way from first.

That helped give Loaiza a comfortable cushion to pitch with, which always comes in handy at Coors. Even if the no-name Rockies are struggling these days, opposing managers are always wary of playing in this home-run haven.

Robinson had to be particularly concerned about Loaiza, who leads the staff with 14 home runs allowed, including five in his last two starts (at pitcher-friendly RFK Stadium no less).

To his credit, though, Loaiza (7-8) did an admirable job keeping the ball in the park last night. He surrendered a pair of doubles to Todd Helton, but neither threatened to clear the fence. The only real mistake Loaiza made was against Wright, whose two-out single in the second accounted for Colorado’s lone run through the first six innings.

“We’re in Colorado. The ball flies,” Loaiza said. “The big key was when I had runners on, I had to keep the ball down. I just wanted to go out and prove I could keep the ball down.”

The veteran right-hander finally hit a wall in the seventh. Back-to-back singles, a sacrifice bunt and a five-pitch walk to Larry Bigbie left the bases loaded and brought Robinson out of the dugout signaling for reliever Luis Ayala.

The side-winding right-hander has been brilliant against right-handed hitters, who are batting just .224 against him. And sure enough, Luis Gonzalez immediately popped to third for the second out of the inning.

On the flip side, Ayala has been miserable against left-handers, who are batting .357 against him. So it had to surprise some onlookers when Robinson left him in to face Helton [-] the Rockies’ most-dangerous batter [-] with the bases still loaded. But Helton, too, popped out to end the inning, preserve Washington’s three-run lead and justify Robinson’s unconventional move.

“I had confidence in him that he could do the job,” Robinson said.

Ayala did surrender a solo homer to Jorge Piedra in the eighth to make it 4-2. Garrett Atkins followed with a single, so Robinson brought in lefty Joey Eischen to face catcher J.D. Closser. Eischen needed only one pitch to get out of the inning: Closser lined the first pitch to Castilla, who caught the ball at his shoetops and then fired to first to complete the double play.

Chad Cordero then retired the side in the ninth for his 38th save.

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