- The Washington Times - Friday, August 10, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO — Think back to those late February days in Viera, Fla., when the Washington Nationals were auditioning 37 different pitchers in hopes of finding 11 who could — at the very least — not embarrass themselves and give this team a chance to win every once in a while.

Nearly six months later, Manny Acta can hardly believe how far his young staff has come. So far, in fact, that it has pitched better than every other staff in the major leagues since June 28.

Yes, in the last 37 games, the Nationals’ team ERA is 3.67, best in the big leagues.

“Obviously, with the guys that we have here, it will be surprising for a lot of people [to hear that],” Acta said. “To have the best ERA, it’s a little bit overwhelming to us.”

Get used to it. As they showed once again yesterday during a 3-1 victory over the San Francisco Giants, the Nationals are winning with pitching.

That they’ve done so with a starting rotation that currently consists of three rookies (Matt Chico, John Lannan and Joel Hanrahan) and two guys signed off the scrap heap last winter as minor league free agents (Mike Bacsik and Tim Redding) only underscores the implausibility of all this.

Hanrahan, a 25-year-old who never could crack the Los Angeles Dodgers major league rotation after seven years, is finally getting his chance with Washington. And he’s making the most of it. With 51/3 innings of one-run ball yesterday, the right-hander added another solid start to his budding resume.

With three big league starts now under his belt, Hanrahan (2-0) has posted a 2.76 ERA. He has done so with a mid-90s fastball and a mid-80s slider that has impressed the Nationals to no end.

“Stuff,” Acta said when asked what stands out about the 6-foot-3, 215-pounder. “The pure stuff that he has. … He can be a horse up here.”

Hanrahan wasn’t his sharpest yesterday, allowing seven hits while issuing four walks. But he came through when he needed to, escaping a harrowing first inning thanks to an adept play by his defense to nail Dave Roberts at the plate on an attempted double steal and later striking out Pedro Feliz on a nasty slider with two on and two out in the fifth.

“He really battled for us and made good pitches when he had to,” Acta said.

And, as he has proved in each of his starts to date, Hanrahan is capable of helping the Nationals just as much with his bat as he can with his arm. With a double to deep left field in the fifth inning, he notched his third extra-base hit in 12 days: two doubles and a triple that gives him a 1.167 slugging percentage that puts Barry Bonds to shame.

“I like to hit,” he said. “But I don’t know that I’d consider myself a ‘hitter.’ ”

Hanrahan wound up scoring Washington’s second run of the game, when Felipe Lopez followed his double with a two-run homer on a hanging breaking ball from Giants lefty Pat Misch (0-2).

Thus, yet another unheralded Nationals starter did his job, something that has become commonplace over the last six weeks. The rotation’s ERA since then (4.58) is nothing to write home about, but it’s certainly respectable and has allowed Acta to use his best weapon to finish off games.

Washington’s true strength lies in the bullpen, where a talented and deep relief corps has ensured this team’s 44-37 record over the last three months. With 32/3 more scoreless innings yesterday in relief of Hanrahan, that unit lowered its ERA since June 28 to 2.21, also the best in baseball.

“It’s one of the best bullpens in the league, I’d say,” Hanrahan said. “I’ve seen these guys before on TV. As soon as you come out of there with a lead, I feel confident.”

Acta’s best were on display yesterday, pitching their way out of some late jams to preserve the victory. Saul Rivera entered with two on and one out in the sixth and coaxed an inning-ending double play out of Kevin Frandsen that Acta called “the key of the game.” Two innings later, Jon Rauch pulled off the afternoon’s greatest escape act.

Rauch allowed two straight singles to open the eighth but got Rajai Davis to whiff at a 1-2 slider. Then the AT&T; Park crowd of 41,555 burst into applause as a familiar figure emerged from the dugout with a bat: Bonds.

The newly crowned home run champion had been given the day off by manager Bruce Bochy, but this situation screamed for his presence, so Bonds strode to the plate to pinch-hit with runners on the corners and one out, his team trailing by two runs.

Pitching coach Randy St. Claire went to the mound to give Rauch specific instructions from Acta: “Don’t try to be macho or try to trick him inside. Make him try to hit it out to left field.”

Rauch followed orders precisely. With a 1-0 fastball on the outside corner, he got Bonds to hit a harmless foul pop-up to third for the second out. Then, with Feliz inexplicably bolting from first on an attempted steal, Rauch pulled off a move that hardly ever works: the spin-to-third, throw-to-first. Feliz was dead on arrival.

“Not that I can remember, at any point in my career,” Rauch said, when asked if he had ever gotten someone out on that move. “You practice it and just do it and hope someone makes a mistake.”

Chad Cordero’s scoreless ninth earned the closer his 25th save and ended another successful game for the surprising Nationals pitching staff.

“They pull for each other, and they’ve got each other’s backs,” catcher Brian Schneider said. “More than anything, it’s a real close-knit group. They’re all younger and they’re all sticking together. Obviously, it’s paying off right now.”

Notes — Dmitri Young was not in the Nationals lineup yesterday because of a tight left hamstring, but the cleanup hitter expects to return tonight against the Diamondbacks. …

Shawn Hill was due to make his final rehab start for Class AAA Columbus last night. Hill is expected to be activated off the disabled list and start for Washington either Tuesday or Wednesday against the Phillies.