- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 29, 2006

ST. LOUIS — Salvation can come at the most unexpected times and from the most unexpected sources. Just ask the Washington Nationals.

Who would have guessed that the Nationals’ best-played game in a week would come against the mighty St. Louis Cardinals, feature an early offensive explosion and boast a dynamite start from Tony Armas Jr.?

Believe it. That cosmic turn of events resulted in a remarkably easy 8-3 victory at new Busch Stadium last night, not to mention an end to Washington’s five-game losing streak.

The Nationals (8-15) still have a load of problems to deal with. Their starting rotation is in disarray. Several key members of the lineup still aren’t hitting. And they remain 71/2 games back in the National League East at this early juncture of the season.

But they had reason to feel good about themselves, if only for one night, after jumping out to a 4-0 lead in the first and then waltzing their way to victory before a crowd of 40,841.

“That’s something we haven’t done,” manager Frank Robinson said. “It’s just a nice feeling to be the team that’s out front.”

Perhaps the only development more encouraging than the offensive eruption was Armas’ six innings of two-run, four-hit ball. The Nationals sorely needed it after watching their rotation crumble over the last week.

The latest calamity was right-hander John Patterson, who has been placed on the 15-day disabled list with a strained right forearm. Washington’s most-talented pitcher isn’t likely to return until at least May 13, leaving a huge void in the rotation.

Patterson could be replaced by Zach Day, reacquired from Colorado this week and the Nationals’ probable starter for tomorrow’s series finale. And rookie left-hander Mike O’Connor, after impressing in his major league debut Thursday, will get at least one more shot Tuesday against the Mets.

There’s no telling how those two fill-ins will perform over the long haul, though, so the pressure is on the remaining trio of Armas, Livan Hernandez and Ramon Ortiz to keep Washington competitive.

“Absolutely, even more so now,” Robinson said before the game. “We need the starting rotation to go out and give us innings to keep us in ballgames and give us a chance to win.”

Remarkably, Armas (2-2) has become the healthiest and most effective starter on the staff. This would be the same guy who has battled shoulder injuries for the last three years.

Those woes appear to be a thing of the past, though, because Armas is throwing as well as he has since early 2003. He has lasted at least five innings in each of his five starts, has yet to give up more than three runs in an outing and now has an ERA of 2.76.

Armas still is throwing too many pitches for Robinson’s liking (109 in only six innings) but he’s making strides and has proven to be a stabilizing force in an otherwise unsettled rotation.

“Everything came together today,” Armas said. “After all the other stuff, it’s just great to win a game.”

Of course, it always helps to have a quick four-run lead.

A pair of two-run homers highlighted the early offensive outburst. With one out and a runner on first, Nick Johnson belted a 3-2 pitch from Jason Marquis into the left-field bullpen for his sixth home run of the year. Three batters later, Ryan Zimmerman took Marquis (3-2) deep down the left-field line for his third career homer.

Another RBI single from Johnson in the second made it 5-0, and even though Armas gave a run back in the bottom of the inning, the Nationals picked him up in the third on Alfonso Soriano’s two-run single.

“Getting four runs early, we can’t sit back and get comfortable there,” Zimmerman said. “Those runs [in the second and third] were huge.”

The rest was up to Armas. He cruised through his remaining four innings and left on a high note thanks to Zimmerman’s highlight-reel grab of Yadier Molina’s sixth-inning line shot and subsequent double-play throw to first.

Perhaps the evening’s only negative development from Washington’s perspective was Albert Pujols’ eighth-inning homer off reliever Felix Rodriguez. The solo blast had no bearing on the outcome of this game, but it gave Pujols 13 home runs in April, tying the major league record.

The Nationals had no problem playing a role in Pujols’ milestone, so long as they were the ones celebrating at the end of the night.

“At 7-15, it’s just nice to win a ballgame,” Robinson said. “Hopefully, we can get something going.”

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