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Nationals finding a high note

- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Washington Nationals closed out the first half of their season Friday night much in the same fashion as they opened it three months ago — on a winning streak.

A 4-2 victory over the Baltimore Orioles, the Nationals' second in a row, perhaps brought back memories of those three games they won to begin the year.

The 76 games sandwiched between those two upswings were, in the words of general manager Jim Bowden, “a nightmare.”

Washington went 32-49 over its first 81 games, the worst record in the National League. Of course, no one assumed four of the team's cornerstone players — third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, first baseman Nick Johnson, right fielder Austin Kearns and closer Chad Cordero — all would spend considerable time on the disabled list.

Their absence has made it difficult for team executives to evaluate what has transpired over the last three months.

“Of course,” manager Manny Acta said. “How can I evaluate my team without four main guys in it?”

The Nationals prefer to look ahead to the next 81 games and what may still be yet to come. They point to the crop of top prospects (Collin Balester, Garrett Mock, Justin Maxwell, Roger Bernadina) who could join the roster at some point later this summer. And they point to the group of young players who already have contributed on the big league level (Elijah Dukes, Jesus Flores, Lastings Milledge, John Lannan).

“Four 23-year-olds to add to [Zimmerman], who's 23,” Bowden said. “We've got five of them now to build around. We're building a core. We're making progress, and we've got more kids coming.”

A couple of those young players were front and center in Friday night's win. Flores drove in a first-inning run with a single to right. Dukes later drove in Washington's final run: a two-out single in the seventh that came moments after pinch hitter Kory Casto broke a 2-2 tie with an RBI double.

A crowd of 35,830 — the largest at Nationals Park since Opening Night — roared as the home team took the lead for good.

“It was pretty awesome,” Casto said of the environment. “The seats were full before we even got out there. It was fun to play in front of everybody.”

By the time the game was decided, Nationals starter Odalis Perez had long since departed. The veteran left-hander knew he would be on a strict pitch count of 80 in his first outing since coming off the disabled list with shoulder tendinitis. He needed 75 pitches to make it through the fourth, although he didn't allow a run, and thus was ineligible to earn the victory.

“Sometimes when you don't pitch for three weeks at this level it's tough to throw a lot of strikes,” said Perez, who threw 42 strikes to 33 balls. “Maybe tonight that was the reason. You get used to it, and maybe next time around I'll be able to go five, six innings and be able to stay out there longer.”

The Nationals had staked their starter to a 2-0 cushion by jumping on Orioles right-hander Daniel Cabrera for a pair of runs on four hits in the first.

Baltimore countered by pushing across the tying runs against reliever Steven Shell, aided by Brian Roberts' fifth-inning triple and Wily Mo Pena's sixth-inning fielding error.

Washington responded. Casto's seventh-inning double off Cabrera scooted past left fielder Jay Payton, scoring Willie Harris from first. Dukes then provided the insurance run with his single up the middle, giving the bullpen a bit more cushion.

Joel Hanrahan, Luis Ayala and Jon Rauch didn't need it, though. Each tossed a scoreless inning of relief, with Rauch escaping a two-on, no-out jam in the ninth to earn his 16th save of the season.

“They're going out there and playing hard,” Acta said. “That's what I want them to do.”