- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 22, 2007

As he watched the late-afternoon shadows slowly creep their way across RFK Stadium yesterday — from behind the plate straight out to center field — Manny Acta had a thought.

“Whoever scores first is going to have a pretty good chance of winning the ballgame,” the Washington Nationals manager said.

Acta knew what he was talking about. When Felipe Lopez homered in the sixth inning, the Nationals suddenly were in good shape. And when Tony Batista added a two-run single one inning later, they were in total control.

Washington’s lights-out bullpen, the most effective relief corps in the majors this month with a 1.84 ERA, then closed the door on the Colorado Rockies and ensured a 3-0 victory before an appreciative crowd of 31,674.

Playing a rare late-afternoon game for only the third time in three years at RFK — the first since 2005 — Nationals hitters knew they would have a tough time seeing the ball. The Rockies had just as much trouble, leaving the two clubs to play scoreless ball for 5½ innings that featured only five combined hits.

“This is an unusual time for baseball games, especially in this type of stadium,” Acta said. “After about the third, fourth inning, it’s tough.”

So when Lopez turned on a 3-2 fastball from Rockies starter Rodrigo Lopez and sent it careening off the Washington Hall of Stars banner beyond the right-field fence, the Nationals (41-56) felt good about their chances.

But not totally confident, not with three innings to play and Colorado’s talented lineup desperate to get something going against Washington starter Mike Bacsik.

Bacsik, though, had other thoughts. The left-hander took advantage of the twilight and his ability to command two of his pitches (fastball and change-up) to author 62/3 shutout innings in his best performance of the season.

“Outstanding,” Acta said. “He pitched ahead all day.”

That was the key for Bacsik (3-6), who too frequently has fallen behind in the count and doesn’t have the “stuff” to pitch his way out of it. By getting ahead of Colorado’s hitters, he was able to throw with confidence, expand the strike zone and get the Rockies to flail at the pitches he wanted to throw.

It sounds simple enough, but it can be difficult in practice.

“At times, you’re on the mound and you’re thinking: ‘I want to throw this pitch.’ And then you think: ‘Wait a second, that’s not the pitch we’re supposed to throw here,’ ” said Bacsik, who has allowed just one earned run over his last 121/3 innings. “So these last few games, I’ve really just thought about what I’m going to do before I do it.”

Bacsik thought his way through a highly effective game plan yesterday. He surrendered back-to-back singles to open the game but got out of the jam with a double-play grounder and then allowed only one other hit the rest of the afternoon.

He finally departed after walking a pair of Rockies in the seventh, receiving a standing ovation from the crowd as he walked off the field and was replaced by Luis Ayala. The sidewinding reliever then finished the inning off, striking out Troy Tulowitzki on a 3-2 slider that caught the plate.

“It stayed straight. It was almost one of those backup sliders,” catcher Brian Schneider said. “Best pitch in baseball.”

Energized by the Ayala strikeout but still clinging to a 1-0 lead, the Nationals finally gave themselves some breathing room in the bottom of the inning. Ryan Church’s double and Austin Kearns’ walk set the stage for Acta to pull every move he had in the bag to add to the lead.

Acta sent D’Angelo Jimenez up to pinch-hit for Robert Fick and drop a sacrifice bunt. Then, with runners on second and third and two outs, he brought the crowd to its feet by calling upon Dmitri Young. The National League’s leading hitter has been hampered the last two days by a bruised heel, but he has been cleared to pinch-hit and provide a dangerous threat off the bench.

Knowing that, Rockies manager Clint Hurdle wasted no time instructing reliever Jeremy Affeldt to intentionally walk Young, much to the dismay of the crowd.

“You still have to take the chance,” Acta said. “You’ve got to send up your best hitter.”

Young, of course, can’t run well, so Ryan Langerhans came on to pinch-run for him. And in his final strategic move, Acta summoned Batista as the fourth Washington reserve off the bench in the inning to bat with the bases loaded and a chance to blow the game open.

The veteran (who is still adjusting to life as a role player) did just that, roping a 1-2 pitch from Affeldt through the left side of the infield to bring home two more runs and give the Nationals a comfortable 3-0 lead.

“In the beginning it was tough, the first two weeks,” said Batista, who has reached safely in five of his last nine pinch-hit appearances. “But now I can handle the situation. Right now, I feel comfortable at home plate.”

In the twilight at RFK, Batista might have been the only player who could say that.

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