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Astacio tosses two-hit shutout for Nats

He's the wily veteran of the Washington Nationals pitching staff, a 36-year-old right-hander whose better days are clearly behind him but who still has a gem in him every once in a while.

Pedro Astacio decided to bring out his best last night, and the result was a thing of beauty: a two-hit shutout of the Atlanta Braves in a briskly played 5-0 Nationals victory before 24,036 at RFK Stadium.

It was Astacio's first complete game in four years and the first by any Washington pitcher this season.

And it couldn't have come at a better time for the Nationals, who were reeling from unsightly losses the last two days and desperately needed a big-time performance from someone on their beleaguered pitching staff.

"Our best pitching performance of the year," catcher Brian Schneider said.

Astacio (3-2) was the man for the job last night, deftly shutting down a Braves lineup that was without Andruw Jones yet still entered with the second-best batting average in the National League. He didn't walk a batter, struck out five, retired the first 14 batters he faced and needed only 89 pitches (66 strikes) to record the first complete game by a Washington pitcher since Livan Hernandez went the distance in a 4-3 loss to the San Francisco Giants on Sept. 20, 2005.

"It was a superb effort on his part from the first pitch of the ballgame to the last pitch of the ballgame," manager Frank Robinson said. "He was in complete control the entire ballgame."

Which was a surprising development in itself because Astacio had been anything but spectacular in his eight previous starts since returning from a three-month stint on the disabled list, carrying a 5.56 ERA into last night's outing.

The veteran hadn't thrown a complete game since 2002, when he was with the New York Mets and pitched a two-hit shutout against the Los Angeles Dodgers to establish his career low-hit game.

Did Astacio remember that one?

"No, not really," he said. "2002? It's about time I got something."

From the start, it was obvious Astacio was a different man. He cruised through the first, retiring the side on only 10 pitches (eight of them for strikes) to set the tone for the evening.

"When he got out there in that first inning, he went right to business," Schneider said. "It was unbelievable how many strikes he threw."

Astacio never let up. When he retreated back to the dugout following the fourth, he had yet to put a single man on base, and his strike-to-ball ratio (26-to-seven) was Greg Maddux-like.

"He was more like Pedro Martinez tonight," Braves first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "That's what we were saying after the third inning: He's throwing just like Pedro. He's throwing any pitch he wants, on any count, and he's painting with it."

Well aware of what was transpiring on the field, the crowd began to hang on every pitch Astacio threw. And when Jeff Francoeur lined a first-pitch fastball with two outs in the fifth into right field to break up the perfect game, the fans gave him a lengthy round of applause.

"I remember like my old times when I throw some shutouts and I am just feeling good," said Astacio, who threw 11 shutouts in the first 11 seasons of his career but hadn't done it once in the last three years.

By the time the no-hitter was broken up, the Nationals were well in control of the game, having taken a 4-0 lead with a balanced offensive attack. They struck in the second thanks to a beautifully placed drag bunt to the right side of the infield by Bernie Castro with two outs that scored Alex Escobar.

It was Castro's second bunt single of that fashion in two days.

"You just don't see that bunt anymore," Robinson said. "It's become extinct."

Washington kept piling on in the third with some help from the Atlanta defense, which committed two errors during a three-run third inning. Second baseman Marcus Giles started things off with a wild throw to first on Felipe Lopez's hard grounder to the hole. Shortstop Tony Pena Jr. added another error moments later when he let Austin Kearns' slow roller get past him, allowing two runs to score.

An RBI double by Kearns in the fifth made it 5-0, and that was more than enough support for Astacio to finish off the best performance by a Nationals pitcher this season and to do it in a scant two hours and one minute.

"About the seventh inning, you're looking at the pitch count he had up there," Robinson said. "The way he was throwing the ball, you just felt like this was it. This was his night."

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