- The Washington Times - Monday, August 15, 2005

DENVER — The Washington Nationals came to Colorado saying they needed to win a minimum of two games at Coors Field. They won all three, punctuated by yesterday’s 9-2 triumph.

Which proves only one thing: The Nationals are better than the Colorado Rockies, the worst team in the National League.

Now comes the real test: Four games in Philadelphia against a Phillies team that sits a half-game ahead of them in both the NL East and wild-card standings, then three games in New York against a Mets squad that remains on the fringes of the race.

“That’s what we needed,” manager Frank Robinson said after the Nationals completed their first three-game sweep in six weeks. “We got them. Now, let’s get out of town. … Let’s see what we do against the Phillies and the Mets.”

It’s too early to say whether the Nationals’ dominant weekend in Colorado — where they won by a combined score of 21-4 — was a sign the sinking club has turned its fortunes around. That probably won’t be clear until they complete the second leg of their 13-game road trip, the team’s longest of the season.

But a Washington team that limped into town Friday having lost 12 of 16 to plummet through the standings did what it had to do this weekend. The Nationals beat up on a lesser opponent, which scored its fewest runs ever in a three-game series at Coors Field; broke out of their month-long offensive funk; and continued to get the kind of pitching that has carried them from Day One.

“We cannot ask for anything better than what we got in Colorado,” outfielder Jose Guillen said. “We’re hitting with guys on base. That’s a good sign right there. I can’t remember when was the last three games that we hit so well with guys on base. We’ve really been coming through.”

The Nationals (62-55) still trail the Atlanta Braves by 5 games in the NL East, but they have crept back within one game of the Houston Astros in the wild-card race.

They did so thanks to a resurgent hitting performance from a group of players who had not been performing up to standard of late. The thin, mountain air was kind to them, though, and served as a real confidence boost.

It started with second baseman Jose Vidro, who Washington fans probably have forgotten is one of the game’s most consistent and clutch hitters. Vidro hasn’t shown that side much this year as he has battled through injuries to both legs, but if this weekend was any indication, he may be on an upswing.

With a 3-for-4 showing yesterday, Vidro improved to 11-for-23 (.478) on the road trip. His batting average is back to .284, still a far cry from his career .304 average but higher than it has been in a month.

“He’s still not there, but he’s getting there with the bat,” Robinson said. “He’s a real weapon in the lineup. He’s the full package. We really missed him. We would have won a few more ballgames in the first half with him healthy.”

The Rockies apparently didn’t realize how hot Vidro’s bat has been yesterday, because they intentionally walked Brad Wilkerson in the fifth inning to get to him. Vidro made them pay — his soft liner to center field scored Cristian Guzman for Washington’s third run of the game and prolonged what turned into a five-run inning.

“I felt strange. Wilky was out the last two games, and I’m swinging the bat good the last couple of games,” said Vidro, who didn’t realize at first the Rockies were walking Wilkerson. “I really want to get into those situations because it brings your energy up. I want to come through. I think that changed the whole game around.”

It did. Moments later Nick Johnson mashed an 0-2 pitch from Jose Acevedo (2-3) off the right-field foul pole for a three-run homer, only the fourth such home run by the Nationals this year.

They weren’t done. Acevedo’s next pitch was crushed into the right-field bleachers by Guillen for his 21st home run of the year, 20 of which have come on the road. It was the first time Washington hit back-to-back homers since April 9 in Florida, when Ryan Church and Vinny Castilla pulled it off.

Guillen, who went 6-for-12 with six RBI in the series, added an RBI double in the seventh, then came around to score on Preston Wilson’s second RBI single of the game. That gave the Nationals a 9-0 lead and ensured starter John Patterson of another victory.

Patterson (7-3) and others admitted he wasn’t his absolute sharpest, but that just demonstrates how good the right-hander can be. He scattered nine hits and two walks over eight innings, not allowing a run until the eighth.

After earning just four wins in his first 19 starts, Patterson now has won his last three. He has started to reap the benefits of what has become a breakout season.

“I’m on a roll right now as far as wins go,” he said. “Hopefully, I can keep that going.”

Patterson still has just seven wins to show for a 2.44 ERA that ranks third in the NL, behind only Cy Young Award candidates Roger Clemens (1.32) and Chris Carpenter (2.25). But he still has his sights set on a strong finish and a respectable win total by season’s end.

“How many more starts do I have left, eight?” he said. “Then 15 would be nice.”

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