Church ending year on high note

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With a late flurry of clutch extra-base hits, Ryan Church might be sending a message he at last can be a productive, regular player for the Washington Nationals.

“I hope so,” the outfielder said. “I hope they look at it that way because I do.”

An up-and-down season for Church is ending on a high note. He went 3-for-5 with a homer and four RBI during Wednesday night’s 9-6 win over the New York Mets, extending a 10-day stretch in which he has hit .500 (10-for-20) with five doubles, two homers and 10 RBI.

And in one of his most impressive at-bats of the season, he connected off Mets closer Billy Wagner for a two-run double in the ninth inning Wednesday, the clincher to Washington’s stunning series sweep at Shea Stadium.

Church, who is hitting just .231 against left-handers this season, impressed manager Manny Acta when he drove an outside pitch from Wagner to the opposite field.

“The last two series he has done a tremendous job taking the ball the other way,” Acta said. “It always gets him in trouble when he tries to pull everything. I hope he keeps that up because that will make him a lot better hitter.”

Church, 28, is the first to admit he still needs to improve as a hitter, especially with his consistency. But as the season ends, his overall numbers — a .275 average, 15 homers, 70 RBI, 43 doubles and a .352 on-base percentage — don’t look half-bad.

“I think they’re pretty good,” he said. “The biggest thing for me was to just finish strong. I know that I’ve had some pretty good Septembers. I know I can do some damage. The biggest thing for me is making things count and taking advantage of the opportunities I get.”

Maxwell, Lannan honored

The Nationals yesterday named Justin Maxwell and John Lannan their minor league player and pitcher of the year, respectively, honoring the accomplishments of a couple of prospects who made huge strides in 2007.

Maxwell, 23, enjoyed a breakthrough season, hitting a combined .281 with 25 doubles, 27 homers, 83 RBI and 35 stolen bases between Class A Hagerstown and Potomac. He was the only player in minor league baseball to record at least 25 doubles, homers and steals, earning the former Maryland star his first big league promotion.

Maxwell, who grew up in Olney, had long been considered a high-ceiling prospect, but injuries had previously stunted his development. Washington’s fourth-round pick in the 2005 draft said he accomplished his primary goal this season by staying healthy.

“Coming out of college, I heard so much about potential, potential, potential,” he said. “I just wanted the opportunity to play every day. I got the opportunity this year, so I’m just thankful for that.”

Lannan’s rise through the Nationals’ farm system, from Potomac to Class AA Harrisburg to Class AAA Columbus to the big leagues, was staggering. The left-hander, who turned 23 yesterday, was a combined 12-3 with a 2.31 ERA in the minors, then went 2-2 with a 4.15 ERA in six major league starts late this summer.

After throwing a career-high 1591/3 innings, Lannan was shut down three weeks ago and has been relaxing at his Long Island, N.Y., home. A longtime family friend and coach of his put together a scrapbook of Lannan’s season, and in studying it, the young hurler has come to appreciate his remarkable year.

“I realized how great of an experience it was and how many places I’ve been to this year,” he said. “Looking back on it now, I really didn’t picture myself being in the big leagues at the beginning of the year. But I worked hard. It makes me realize just what I accomplished this year.”

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