- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 27, 2008

So many things need to go right for the Washington Nationals to win a ballgame these days.

The young starting pitcher needs to keep the damage to a minimum. The power-deprived offense needs to produce a couple of clutch hits. The defense needs to make a few sparkling plays. And the makeshift bullpen needs to come up large despite its inexperience in pressure-filled situations.

When it does all come together - as it did Tuesday night in a 2-1 victory over the visiting Los Angeles Dodgers - it’s quite a sight. Washington hadn’t won a home game in more than three weeks, so players took a few extra moments to savor the victory.

“We have the ability to play a complete baseball game,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “If we can keep continuing playing like this and not making the same mistakes that we’ve made that lost us all those games, I think that will be huge for us this last month.”

It took everything the Nationals had in them to pull a tight victory out over the playoff-contending Dodgers, who stranded 10 men and had countless opportunities to seize control of the game.

But when new closer Joel Hanrahan wriggled his way out of a ninth-inning jam, stranding the tying and go-ahead runners on base, Washington’s triumph was complete.

“It was a little interesting,” Hanrahan said. “But we got through it and got the win.”

The Nationals first scrapped together a couple of early runs off Los Angeles’ Derek Lowe. The sinkerball specialist entered with a 5-0 record and 2.88 ERA in his career against the Nationals.

Washington, though, took advantage of a couple of Lowe mistakes, getting a solo homer from Lastings Milledge (his team-leading 13th of the season) in the second and an RBI single from Cristian Guzman in the third.

It wasn’t much, but it was enough for starter Collin Balester, who didn’t strike out a single batter but came up big when he needed it most.

The one run the rookie right-hander surrendered wasn’t even his fault. With the bases loaded in the fifth, Zimmerman made a nifty play on Matt Kemp’s sharp grounder, stepping on third for a force out and then firing off-balance to the plate to attempt to double up Nomar Garciaparra. Catcher Jesus Flores, though, didn’t realize Zimmerman had stepped on third and thus thought he needed only to step on the plate to retire Garciaparra.

As it turned out, Flores dropped the ball without ever tagging the runner, and although plate umpire Mark Wegner initially ruled Garciaparra out, he got the call right after conferring with crew member Sam Holbrook.

With all that chaos sorted out, the Nationals’ lead was 2-1. It threatened to disintegrate altogether in the sixth when Balester allowed a leadoff double to Manny Ramirez and a single to James Loney.

That prompted manager Manny Acta to pull Balester after only 77 pitches and summon fellow rookie Marco Estrada from the bullpen.

Estrada, making his third career appearance, escaped the jam but only after a harrowing moment in which Zimmerman committed an error on a wide throw to second base. He redeemed himself immediately, though, snagging Garciaparra’s line drive and beating Ramirez back to the base for a double play.

“He was amazing,” Balester said of Zimmerman. “Any ball that comes to that guy, it’s an out.”

“It was a busy night for me,” the third baseman said. “I’d rather have that any night than no balls hit to me. It was fun.”

Estarda intentionally walked No. 8 hitter Casey Blake to load the bases, but he struck out Lowe to end the inning.

“We had to work a couple Houdinis out there,” Acta said. “How we did it, I don’t know.”