- The Washington Times - Monday, August 17, 2009

CINCINNATI | Hustle plays, at least the kind that can wake up a team on a sweltering Sunday afternoon and turn a probable loss into a gritty win, aren’t what the Washington Nationals have been known for this season.

Some of that is philosophical; former manager Manny Acta wasn’t big on bunting other than in the pitcher’s spot or before the late innings, and the Nationals generally have treated outs as things not to be trifled with on the basepaths.

Most of that hasn’t changed under interim manager Jim Riggleman. But what has is the attitude - aggression is encouraged, even if it results in an out once in a while.

It did Sunday. But it also saved the game for the Nationals.

Washington’s 5-4 win over the Cincinnati Reds, which gave the Nationals a 3-1 series victory and salvaged an even split out of a road trip that couldn’t have started much worse, turned on a pair of hustle plays. One didn’t work, and it cost the Nationals a run. But when Josh Willingham decided to take a chance in the eighth inning, it pushed the Nationals to their 11th win in 14 games.

Two innings after being thrown out on a suicide squeeze, he raced home when Reds second baseman Drew Sutton was slow to relay the ball back into the infield after a Ryan Zimmerman pinch-hit single in the eighth inning, scoring the winning run in an improbable Nationals victory.

“He’s just a ballplayer,” Riggleman said of Willingham. “The aggressiveness he showed there, you can’t teach that. That was all him. He’s been doing a lot of great things for us. That’s just another one that he did.”

Zimmerman’s single deflected off right fielder Craig Dickerson and bounced to Sutton. He threw to first baseman Joey Votto, who had to rush a throw to catcher Ryan Hanigan once Willingham left third. The throw was high and to Hanigan’s left, and when he leaped to grab it, Willingham plowed into his midsection like a strong safety blasting a receiver over the middle. Hanigan’s outstretched glove never tagged Willingham, and home plate umpire Angel Campos ruled Willingham safe.

He pumped his fist once, then returned to a raucous Nationals dugout.

“It was just spur-of-the-moment. I just took off,” Willingham said. “When he lobbed the ball, I said, ‘I’m going to take a chance,’ and it worked out.”

That one did. The suicide squeeze the Nationals attempted in the sixth inning didn’t.

Willingham broke late for home, but the pitch from Justin Lehr was too high for Alberto Gonzalez to bunt. As Gonzalez ducked under the ball, Willingham had no recourse but to run into an easy out at home plate.

“It was a tough pitch to handle. It’s kind of hit-or-miss any time you do that,” Riggleman said. “When you put that play on, who knows what’s going to happen? They might pitch out, you might miss the ball, but you can kind of get a cheap run if you put the ball in play.”

The success rate on the plays at the plate was at least good enough to right a game that starter John Lannan looked to be in command of early.

Lannan, except for one inning, was generally sharp an outing after getting thumped by the Atlanta Braves. He threw 70 of his 109 pitches for strikes and breezed through four shutout innings while the Nationals took a 2-0 lead on Willingham’s 461-foot homer.

He ran into trouble in the fifth, though, walking Sutton with one on and two out and putting a second runner on base for the middle of the Reds’ order.

Votto responded by singling home Hanigan, pulling Cincinnati within one. Then Jonny Gomes, who hit three homers on Thursday night, blasted a three-run shot to left that gave the Reds a two-run lead.

The inning also rang up Lannan’s pitch count; he lasted just 5 2/3 innings despite the strong start.

“The walk to Sutton kind of got me,” Lannan said. “I made a good pitch to Votto, and that’s good hitting. Gomes, I made a pitch in, and that’s his swing path. He was able to get enough air under it and get it out. … [But] today was a hard-nosed win by us, and I’m glad we got the win.”

They did, because the Nationals kept taking chances after one didn’t work out.

“No matter what the score is, we know we’re probably not out of it,” first baseman Adam Dunn said. “If there’s one thing we can take positive out of this year, that’s it.”