PITTSBURGH — The Washington Nationals' 81st game of the season would serve well as a condensed version of the club's performance in 2007.
Beaten down by a long road trip that had seen some key contributors suffer debilitating injuries, the Nationals entered yesterday's game against the Pittsburgh Pirates with only a few loyal followers believing they could get back on track and win a game.
And then, just as has been the case several times this season, Washington got some big-time performances from some unlikely players for a much-needed 3-2 victory at PNC Park.
Thus, the Nationals completed the first half of their season in impressive fashion. The five-game losing streak they snapped yesterday leaves them with a 33-48 record that ranks ahead of only the Cincinnati Reds in the major leagues, but the Nationals still have exceeded most expectations for a historically bad season and have equaled their win total from the first half of last season.
"Obviously, I want to be in a better spot in the win and loss column," manager Manny Acta said. "But I'm pretty pleased with the effort and the progress we have made when it comes down to playing the game the way we want it to be played."
Acta wasn't pleased with his players' mental state late Saturday night following their fifth straight loss on this road trip. So during a 20-minute clubhouse meeting, he emphasized to his young players not to be satisfied merely exceeding expectations.
The Nationals went back to their hotel, slept on Acta's words and then returned rejuvenated yesterday during a well-played victory over the Pirates.
"I think everybody takes responsibility for themselves, especially when as a team and as individuals you get called out for not doing your best," said left-hander Mike Bacsik, who pitched six strong innings to earn his first win in more than a month. "I felt that, but I think everybody felt that today."
Bacsik (2-5) carried a three-hit shutout into the seventh inning before finally fading. Pitching with confidence and precision for the first time in a while, he threw first-pitch strikes to 17 of the 25 batters he faced and issued only one walk (intentional).
"He threw the best pitch in baseball: first-pitch strikes," Acta said.
And he was bolstered by a Washington lineup that did just enough to ensure victory and avoid an 0-6 road trip to Atlanta and Pittsburgh. Held to two runs or less in each of their previous five games, the Nationals broke out for three runs off Pirates starter Paul Maholm (4-11).
Robert Fick, making a rare start in left field, drove in the first run with a bases-loaded groundout in the fourth. The biggest hit of the day came two innings later off the bat of Jesus Flores, Washington's rookie backup catcher, who clubbed a two-run shot to left for his first career homer.
Flores, a 22-year-old who had never played above Class A before being selected in last winter's Rule 5 draft, doesn't get much playing time, perhaps one start a week. But he's constantly working with coaches, watching his teammates and learning on the job so he will be ready when the call does come.
"The key is just to keep practicing and working on your skills, batting and catching," he said. "That's what I've been doing. If I'm not going to play, I just have to try to do the best."
The soft-spoken Venezuelan was all smiles after crushing an 0-2 curveball from Maholm just over the left-field fence for the deciding blow in yesterday's win. The Nationals made sure to retrieve the ball for Flores, who will proudly display it at his home.
"I'm so happy about it," he said. "It feels great to help out, to help the team win."
Flores contributed behind the plate yesterday, too. Bacsik credited the rookie catcher for calling a good game and studying up on the club's gameplan to attack Pittsburgh's hitters. The plan worked to near perfection until the seventh, when Bacsik surrendered a single and a double and then threw wildly on a comebacker for an error.
Acta pulled his starter there, handing the ball to reliever Luis Ayala. Though Ayala allowed two inherited runners to score, both came on sacrifice flies, and he closed the inning by getting a groundout to preserve Washington's one-run lead.
Jon Rauch and Chad Cordero then finished things off, each tossing a scoreless inning, with Cordero getting a game-ending double play to earn his 14th save and end the first half of an encouraging Nationals season on a high note.
"We can still be doing better," Cordero said. "We could have won five or six more games, at least. But overall, it's been all right. We're not the worst team in the league. We're going out there and competing every day."