Nats deliver in clutch

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It might have been over when they gave up the lead in top of the seventh. Or when they stranded the bases loaded in the bottom of the inning. Or certainly when Alfonso Soriano struck out just as they were starting to put a rally together in the ninth.

The old Washington Nationals would have succumbed to those failures because they just didn’t seem to have the fortitude to overcome adversity.

Perhaps, though, these aren’t the same old Nationals anymore. Ever since returning home to their refurbished ballpark and new owner last week, they have been playing a brand of winning baseball that hasn’t been seen around these parts for a while.

The good vibes continued last night during a 4-3 victory over the San Francisco Giants that required a ninth-inning rally to overcome a one-run deficit. Ryan Zimmerman and Austin Kearns provided the clutch hitting performances, driving in the tying and winning runs, respectively.

But it doesn’t seem to matter who’s at the plate with the game on the line these days. The Nationals matched their season high with a five-game winning streak through the collective effort of nearly everyone on the roster.

“We’re a confident team right now,” said Zimmerman, whose one-out single to left off closer Armando Benitez tied last night’s game and set up Kearns to drive in the winning run with a bases-loaded sacrifice fly to left.

Funny how winning does that to a team that only six days ago looked ready to call this a season.

Since returning to RFK, the Nationals (45-56) have played with new life. They swept the Chicago Cubs over the weekend and now will attempt to do the same to the Giants this afternoon in what is likely to be Soriano’s final home game in a Washington uniform.

Soriano, all but assured of being traded before Monday’s league-wide deadline, didn’t figure into the outcome of this game (though he did spark a two-run rally in the third inning by turning a soft liner to left-center into a double).

If anything, it looked like Soriano might have been the goat when he followed Robert Fick’s leadoff walk in the ninth by swinging wildly at Benitez’s 95 mph fastball at his eyelids.

But this lineup’s success isn’t entirely predicated on Soriano any longer. So even when the star leadoff man struck out, his teammates were ready to pick him up. Felipe Lopez smashed a hard grounder to second that ate up Ray Durham for an infield single, putting runners on first and second for Zimmerman.

The rookie third baseman had failed to produce in a similar situation two innings before. This time he drove Benitez’s 1-0 pitch into left field to score Fick with the tying run, his league-leading 41st hit with runners in scoring position.

“It’s right in front of our eyes: Each at-bat, each week, each ballgame, he just seems to mature and get better as he goes along,” manager Frank Robinson said. “How much better can he get? I really don’t know, but I know he is going to get better, and he’s pretty good right now.”

The Nationals weren’t done. Nick Johnson drew a walk to load the bases for Kearns and set the stage for the 27-year-old outfielder to produce his first big hit with his new club.

Like Zimmerman, Kearns popped out in the same situation in the seventh. This time, he delivered, lofting a high fly ball to medium left field, easily deep enough to score Lopez with the winning run and leave the crowd of 30,248 bouncing in celebration.

“I’m glad in a way that Kearns was the one who drove in the winning run in that situation,” Robinson said. “He came through this time. He’s a major league hitter. If you keep giving him chances, he’s going to come through.”

The shock of the eight-player trade that brought Kearns to Washington from Cincinnati is starting to wear off, particularly since the club returned to RFK.

“Meeting the team on the road, you still kind of had that weird feeling,” Kearns said. “You didn’t feel comfortable. It’s really helped being home.”

Lost among the late-game heroics was a standout pitching performance from Pedro Astacio, the veteran right-hander who authored his best outing since coming off the disabled list earlier this month. Astacio held the Giants to one run over his first six innings before getting charged with two more during a seventh-inning uprising made possible in part by Marlon Anderson’s error at second base.

Astacio was particularly effective at handling Barry Bonds, even though the prodigious slugger walked in his first two plate appearances. On the first of those, Astacio nearly struck Bonds out looking at an inside fastball. The borderline pitch drew a loud reaction from the fans, but plate umpire Jeff Kellogg would have none of it.

Astacio, though, didn’t back down. When he got ahead of Bonds 1-2 in the sixth, he came right back with the same pitch. Bonds again took it, but this time Kellogg rung him up. The crowd roared with delight; Bonds (who left in the ninth with a strained hamstring) stood and glared at Kellogg, incredulous over the called third strike that left him hitless in this series.

“Just a super job on his part,” Robinson said of Astacio. “He kept them off balance, made good pitches and got outs. You couldn’t ask for any more than that.”

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