Nats keep climbing upward, beat Reds

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CINCINNATI | For most of this season, the Washington Nationals have shown an ability to lose for days on end that has been simply alarming.

Eight times this season, they’ve gone on losing streaks of four or more games. And after ending those streaks, they answered by winning consecutive games only four times.

The Nationals arrived at baseball’s worst record by building a succession of long losing streaks, then failing to counter them with a series of wins. But during an eight-game winning streak under interim manager Jim Riggleman, they began to change that trend.

They took a less-publicized but equally vital step Saturday night in their 10-6 victory. Arriving at Great American Ball Park having put an end to a three-game losing streak Friday, the Nationals came back with the kind of definitive win that shows they’re going to fight through the last six weeks of the season.

Washington roared to a 10-1 lead, tagging Reds starter Johnny Cueto for seven runs in 2 2/3 innings and tallying three more on former teammate Kip Wells while J.D. Martin turned in six solid innings. The win gave the Nationals a chance to salvage a split of a six-game road trip that began with two losses in Atlanta and another here.

“You’ve got to [stop losing streaks],” Riggleman said. “The way you generally do it is, a so-called stopper goes out there in the rotation for you and stops a losing streak. We’ve done it offensively. The best teams in baseball are going to have some four-, five-game losing streaks during the course of the year, but you’ve got to minimize them.”

The Nationals’ surge started as a trickle in the second inning, when Adam Dunn punched a home run to left field, his 31st of the year and his first as a visitor in his old ballpark. But Cueto, who has followed a superb start to the year with a two-month slide in which he’s as likely to implode as be effective, kept serving up hittable pitches. And the Nationals kept blasting him.

They racked up six runs on six hits in the third inning, the big blow coming on Alberto Gonzalez’s two-out, bases-loaded double. In the same situation in the fourth, Elijah Dukes delivered another one of the pivotal shots the Nationals have been incapable of landing most of the year. Dukes tripled to right, scoring three runs, putting the Nationals up 10-1 and effectively giving Martin license to cruise the rest of the night.

That’s pretty much all Martin did. He threw 54 of his 93 pitches for strikes, never displaying precise command but registering enough quick outs to keep the Reds from mounting a comeback attempt.

” ‘Keep throwing strikes’ is what I tell myself,” Martin said of pitching with a big lead. “Don’t start walking people. Let them hit it a little bit, and let my defense do some work.”

The comeback happened in the presence of Logan Kensing. The reeling reliever came in with the Nationals up 10-1 in the seventh and with two outs proceeded to breathe faint life into a game that should have been over. He walked Chris Dickerson, then gave up two hits before Drew Sutton launched a two-run homer into the Nationals’ bullpen, pulling the Reds within 10-5.

There was still no major cause for concern, but it was the latest in a string of unsightly showings for Kensing. He has given up 12 earned runs in his past 7 1/3 innings and has a 10.46 ERA. Given the fact the Nationals carry a bloated eight-man bullpen and Riggleman has said they’ll probably reduce that number to seven in the near future, it’s conceivable Kensing’s second major league stint with the Nationals this season is coming to an end.

“I think he topped out at 96,” Riggleman said. “[Pitching coach] Steve McCatty and I talk about it a lot. Something is easy to see for the hitters, or he’s tipping his pitches or something. He throws too good to get hit that hard. We hope he can get that straightened out.”

His night wasn’t the only nit to pick. Washington made three errors, two of them on pickoff attempts by Martin. But not even those things could sour the Nationals’ night too much.

No matter how they did it, it was crucial for the Nationals to keep things going right for more than a day. And they did it.

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