- The Washington Times - Monday, May 8, 2006

Ten games under .500 is unfamiliar territory for the Washington Nationals, who never fell more than one under the break-even mark in their inaugural season.

It is not, however, an insurmountable obstacle. At least that’s what Frank Robinson says. He has seen other teams get off to horrible starts and then make a second-half run.

The manager also knows a struggling team can’t get it all back in one mad flurry. So Robinson is urging his Nationals to focus on one simple task these days: Win series.

“Win series, start closing that gap,” he said. “And maybe if you get to four or five ballgames [under .500], now you can say our goal is to get to .500.”

The Nationals took a step in the right direction yesterday in a 5-4 win over the Pirates. OK, a baby step: Washington took two of three from a Pittsburgh team that is off to its worst start in 49 years.

But in this town, that counts as progress. Remember, the Nationals (11-21) had won only one of their first 10 games at RFK Stadium this season. Now they have won two of their last three, and that’s a relief in itself.

“It’s a relief to finally win a series anywhere,” Robinson said. “We could have been in the Mojave Desert today. We won a series. That’s what’s important.”

It’s also important how Washington secured this series, riding another solid start from rookie Mike O’Connor, a five-run third inning and a rare save from Chad Cordero to send the RFK crowd of 30,659 home happy for a change.

It wasn’t beautiful baseball, but it did bear a slight resemblance to all those one-run nailbiters from a year ago — games the Nationals made a habit of winning.

They pulled it off yesterday, earning only their second one-run win in 10 tries this season. And for that, they can thank O’Connor, the 25-year-old lefty from Ellicott City, Md., and George Washington University who is quickly becoming a cult hero around here.

With more than 100 family members and friends in the stands to watch his RFK debut, O’Connor again displayed the poise of a veteran hurler. He did not have his best stuff, but he gutted his way through five innings, allowing three runs to improve to 2-1 in his burgeoning career.

This one was different than his previous two starts, which came on the road in St. Louis and New York. This time, the kid had to deal with the pressure that comes from pitching in his hometown with a stadium full of well-wishers.

O’Connor admitted to being thrown off a little yesterday afternoon when he walked in from the bullpen and was greeted by dozens of friends, many he hadn’t spoken to in several years.

“Walking out there, a lot of people were yelling at me that I’ve known,” he said. “It’s all a little weird knowing that people are watching me.”

O’Connor tried to block it all out, but he still might have been thinking of all those old high school and college teammates in the stands when he put four of the game’s first five batters on base (only one via base hit). But he managed to keep the damage to a minimum, giving up only one run on Jason Bay’s double off the wall before buckling down to get out of the jam.

He was forced to pitch out of the stretch almost all afternoon, never once making it through a 1-2-3 inning. But he allowed only one other RBI hit, Freddy Sanchez’s two-run triple in the fourth, and that was good enough to earn his second career win.

“The kid has a lot of heart,” Robinson said. “He doesn’t back down, he doesn’t back off when things get a little tough. I saw it a lot in the first two ballgames, and I really saw it today in the first inning. We could have lost it right there. … But he hung tough.”

And he was rewarded for his efforts thanks to a big third inning from his teammates. Held in check to that point by Pirates ace Zach Duke (2-3), the Nationals strung together five hits to produce five runs in the inning.

The key hit was Nick Johnson’s two-out, bloop single over the shortstop’s head that brought Washington’s first two runs across and, as Robinson said, “kind of loosened everyone up.”

Moments later, Jose Guillen hit a towering, two-run homer into the first row of Section 446. Guillen, mired in a season-long funk at the plate, couldn’t help but stand a few extra seconds to admire his upper-deck blast.

“I keep telling everybody, don’t worry about me,” said Guillen, who hadn’t homered at RFK since Aug. 24, 2005 (a span of 108 at-bats). “I’m struggling, but I will find my way to get out of this slump.”

Fans might not be worried about Cordero anymore either after his economical, 15-pitch, four-out save. Called in to get out of an eighth-inning jam, the Nationals closer retired Sanchez on his first pitch, then cruised through a 1-2-3 ninth to earn only his third save of the year and first since April 16.

“It’s been so long since I’ve had the chance,” said Cordero, who retired all 10 batters he faced in this series. “To be able to go out there these last couple of games and do it is pretty cool.”

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