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Harris’ home run boosts Nats

- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 31, 2008

— Willie Harris has long since accepted that his ticket to survival in the big leagues is through his versatility.

The 29-year-old infielder/outfielder knows he's not likely to be an everyday player, but he knows he can sustain a productive career by holding down a variety of roles. Already this season, he has played five different positions for the Washington Nationals -- left field, center field, second base, third base and shortstop -- despite appearing only 10 times in the starting lineup.

Harris, though, has shown a knack for delivering when given a chance. And last night he was up to his old tricks again, making a rare start at second base and drilling the deciding, three-run homer in the Nationals' 7-4 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks.

"I'm not an everyday player, and I know that," he said. "But at the same time, when given an opportunity, you've got to make the most of the opportunities."

With the game knotted 3-3 in the seventh, Harris came to the plate with two on and one out. The diminutive utilityman fouled off a first-pitch slider from Arizona starter Micah Owings, then turned on an 89 mph fastball and belted it over the right-field fence.

As the Chase Field crowd of 25,391 sat in stunned silence, Harris rounded the bases triumphantly for the second time this season and only the ninth time in 1,307 career at-bats.

"I'm by far not a home run hitter," he said. "And I don't consider myself one either."

The .169 hitter, mired in a 1-for-15 slump, was afforded the chance to start and lead off as part of a lineup overhaul for the series opener against the NL West leaders. With more than half of his Opening Night lineup injured and those remaining starters slogging their way through an abysmal stretch at the plate, manager Manny Acta decided to shake things up a bit.

Out were slumping outfielders Wily Mo Pena (.207) and Elijah Dukes (.143) and second baseman Felipe Lopez (.247), replaced by a trio of reserves all hitting below .170: Rob Mackowiak, Ryan Langerhans and Harris.

Those three might not have brought much pedigree to the table, but with nobody else producing these days, Acta figured he might as well try something different. Plus, all three hit from the left side of the plate, and Owings (6-3) holds right-handed hitters to a .196 average.

"I'm happy for a guy like Willie because Willie works so hard and brings a lot of energy to our club every single day," Acta said. "He's a very coachable kid. I'm glad it worked out and those guys were able to contribute to our victory today."

As it turned out, the man who staked the Nationals to an early 2-0 lead was one of the few regulars who has been hitting with any consistency: Jesus Flores. The second-year catcher continued his clutch-hitting ways with a second-inning, line-drive single to right, scoring Dmitri Young and Lastings Milledge and putting the visitors on top.

Flores, though, later left the game with headaches and nausea after taking two foul tips off his facemask, including one off Owings' bat in the sixth inning that caromed well into the stands.

"I just came back from that inning to the dugout, and I started feeling dizzy and a little nauseous," Flores said. "I just was scared, so that's why I told the trainer."

Washington starter Tim Redding managed to hold the two-run lead Flores provided for a while, but as has so often been the case this year, the right-hander faded little by little as the night wore on.

Despite Redding's solid overall numbers this year -- a 6-3 record and 3.71 ERA now in 12 starts -- the more telling numbers may involve his declining performance inning by inning. Opposing batters are hitting just .163 in their first at-bat against Redding. That number rises to .237 the second time around the order, then skyrockets to .328 after that.

So it perhaps didn't come as much surprise last night when Redding shut the Diamondbacks out without a hit through three innings, then surrendered a solo homer to Orlando Hudson in the fourth, then allowed another run in the fifth thanks to two walks and two singles, then couldn't make it out of the sixth after allowing two of three batters to reach safely.

"For whatever reason, the third time has been the problem for me," Redding said. "But I'm not consciously thinking about it out there. You can't go out there the sixth inning and all of a sudden change the way you're throwing. If you're having success, you've got to do the first five innings what you've been doing to have success."

Acta finally summoned Joel Hanrahan out of the bullpen to try to escape the jam and preserve the Nationals' 3-2 lead, but No. 8 hitter Chris Snyder grounded the right-hander's second pitch into center field to drive in the tying run and charge Redding with his third earned run.

Hanrahan (1-2) settled down after that, recording five key outs to earn the win. Luis Ayala served up a solo homer to Chad Tracy in the eighth, but Jon Rauch pitched a scoreless ninth to earn his 12th save in 14 tries and seal an impressive win that perhaps finally will spark this club.

"It's only one game," Acta cautioned. "We've got to continue to put together more games like this."