- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Everything about the way the Washington Nationals have played the last two weeks games suggests they’ve somehow found in this lost season a footing they never had under former manager Manny Acta.

The Nationals lost their first five games after Acta was fired and replaced with Jim Riggleman, but then came out like a rebooted version of themselves, reeling off eight wins in 14 games with a square-jawed resolve that matched Riggleman’s.

There would be no better test of that resolve than Tuesday night, when the Nationals faced the Florida Marlins for the first time under Riggleman.

It wasn’t just that the Marlins had beaten the Nationals with Acta on the bench. It was the way they’d done it, winning 10 in a row this year - and 23 of 26 - with clutch homers, late-inning rallies and the occasional timely rain delay to shorten a game they happened to be winning.

For the first seven innings, it looked as if Florida would wind up with a win over the Nationals that resembled so many of the other victories the last two seasons.

But then something happened - an eighth-inning rally that defied virtually everything that’s happened between these two teams since the start of the 2008 season.

And when Adam Dunn’s two-run homer cleared the left-field fence, giving the Nationals the lead for good and setting up their first win over the Marlins since Sept. 23, 2008, it sealed what might have been Washington’s most uplifting victory this season.

His blast capped a six-run eighth, giving the Nationals a 6-4 win over the Marlins and continuing Washington’s resurgent stretch.

“I think this is probably be the best game of the season,” Dunn said. “We put some good at-bats together in the eighth inning, and that’s just kind of what happens.”

No Nationals player had a concrete explanation for why they’re now getting the kind of scrappy victories they couldn’t produce under Acta. Perhaps one isn’t needed.

“It’s a different feeling, but I think we could’ve done that a month ago,” infielder Willie Harris said. “We just weren’t able to pull it out, but now things are going well.”

For most of this game, though, they weren’t.

Josh Johnson, the Marlins’ young ace, simply overwhelmed the Nationals with his fastball, while J.D. Martin’s soft-tossing, strike-scattering repertoire never came close to getting the job done against the Marlins’ lineup.

Martin labored for 99 pitches in just 4 1/3 innings, throwing 58 of them for strikes and leaving a few too many of them in appetizing locations for Florida’s aggressive hitters.

“I threw a lot of pitches early and got kind of tired,” Martin said. “Those four walks killed me today. I’m pretty disappointed in the outing.”

In the fourth, Martin floated a full-count fastball to the middle inner half of the plate against Cody Ross - a pitch practically begging to be sent out of the ballpark - and the center fielder obliged, hitting his 18th homer of the year and fourth against Washington.

Two batters later, Martin left the third of three mid-80s fastballs over the middle of the plate, and Johnson blasted it out for his third homer of the year, tying Dontrelle Willis for the most homers hit in a season by a Marlins pitcher and providing the requisite bottom-of-the-order haymaker that’s occurred in so many of these Nationals losses.

On the mound, meanwhile, Johnson was nothing short of superb for the first seven innings, moving his mid-90s fastball in and out of the strike zone and setting up a hard slider that touched 89 mph on occasion.

He gave up a pair of singles in the first inning to Cristian Guzman and Josh Willingham but didn’t allow another hit in the first seven innings, retiring 20 straight batters. In fact, he only allowed three balls to be hit out of the infield. That all changed in the eighth.

The inning started innocently enough with a pair of singles from Harris and Alberto Gonzalez. But Wil Nieves added another one, and Ronnie Belliard blasted a pinch-hit double that nearly skipped the left-field wall, driving in two runs.

“There’s a lot of veterans in there,” Riggleman said. “It’s perceived as a young club. It’s a young pitching staff, but there’s a lot of veterans in there with a lot of pride.”

Guzman punched a single to right, tying the game at 4-4. With two outs, Guzman on first and left-hander Dan Meyer in to shut him down, Dunn delivered his blast.

He’d struck out three times to that point, flailing against Johnson the way the rest of the Nationals were. And with a full count, Dunn said he had no idea what Meyer might throw.

But he connected, and against the grain of everything the Marlins have done to the Nationals recently, the ball went out.

“Against, in my opinion, the best pitcher in the game - a four-run lead, that’s pretty tough,” Dunn said. “But a couple big hits, and we’re up.”

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