- The Washington Times - Monday, May 28, 2007

ST. LOUIS — They left town a week ago content from a successful homestand but cognizant it could have been nothing more than a brief part of a long season.

When they arrived back in Washington last night following a 7-2 win over the St. Louis Cardinals to cap a hugely successful road trip, the Nationals suddenly had reason to believe this has been no brief trend but rather a legitimate sign of better things to come.

“Only time will tell,” cautious manager Manny Acta said. “But everything is clicking right now.”

Yesterday’s triumph on a rainy afternoon at Busch Stadium was only the kicker to a Nationals turnaround that is now approaching three weeks. Acta’s club has won 12 of its last 17 games, improving to 21-30 and all but ensuring it won’t rank among the sport’s all-time worst teams by season’s end.

It would take a monumental collapse from here on out, the likes of which have never been seen in baseball history, for Washington to re-enter the discussion with noted losers like the 1962 New York Mets and the 2003 Detroit Tigers. Those teams barely won 40 games. This team already is halfway there by Memorial Day.

“We’re out to prove people wrong,” rookie left-hander Matt Chico. “They said a lot of things when the season started, and I think that’s what we’re trying to do: prove them all wrong.”

The Nationals certainly made believers out of the Cardinals after taking two of three from the defending World Series champions. No, Tony La Russa’s current club bears no resemblance to the one that toppled the Tigers in October, but there was little doubt Acta was managing the better team this weekend.

Washington got better pitching, both from its starters and its bullpen, than St. Louis. And it certainly got better production in key moments at the plate than a Cardinals squad that is now 20-27.

All that was evident during yesterday’s game, which was interrupted by a 61-minute rain delay.

However, the only player who was hurt by the fifth-inning delay was Chico, who had tossed four shutout innings to that point but wasn’t allowed to retake the mound after the long layoff and thus was denied a chance to earn his fourth win of the season.

“Too bad,” Acta said. “But we couldn’t take a chance with a kid like that, send him out there again like that.”

Chico, who has had two of his four starts cut short by rain, said he could have remained in yesterday’s game but understood the manager’s rationale for pulling him.

“It was getting close to an hour, and you’re risking injury coming back,” Chico said. “I’m fine with it. It’s Manny’s decision, and I’ll support it.”

The Nationals led 2-0 at the time thanks to Ronnie Belliard’s two-run homer off Adam Wainwright in the fifth. It was one of four hits by the utility infielder, who got a rare start at shortstop against his former team and made the most of the opportunity.

“I’ve just got to do my job whenever I play,” said Belliard, who is now hitting .281. “Manny Acta put me in the lineup, and thank God I got four hits out of it.”

With Chico out of the game following the rain delay, Acta turned to his ever-reliable bullpen to protect the two-run lead. Saul Rivera gave one run back in the sixth but still managed to bridge the gap between Chico and the back end of the bullpen and earned his first win in the process.

Left-hander Ray King ultimately was Washington’s most-effective reliever, tossing a scoreless seventh while throwing seven of his eight pitches for strikes.

Then in the eighth, the Nationals scored five more runs to turn a once tight ballgame into a blowout. Belliard scored when Nook Logan struck out on a pitch in the dirt that bounced away from catcher Yadier Molina, rookie Jesus Flores drew a two-out walk to load the bases again, and Ryan Langerhans delivered the big blow with a grand slam to center off reliever Randy Flores.

It was only the second homer in Langerhans’ career off a left-hander, and it underscored the outfielder’s steady progression at the plate since being acquired from the Oakland Athletics earlier this month.

“It’s really starting to feel like it’s coming around, because I feel like I’m able to drive the ball a lot better in [batting practice],” said Langerhans, who is hitting .270 since the trade. “And today was the first time I got really extended on a pitch and was able to drive it during a game. The swing’s starting to feel good.”

As is the entire Nationals clubhouse. It wasn’t long ago this team was being mocked around baseball for being historically bad. After this holiday weekend, perhaps some of those doubters are starting to reconsider their position on the Nationals.

“We never gave up on ourselves,” first baseman Dmitri Young said. “Manny said there’d be times where we’d play well and things wouldn’t go our way. And there’d be times where … this stretch we’ve been on was going to happen. We never got too high, we never got too low, especially when we started out 1-9. That’s testament to our manager.”

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