- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 12, 2009

HOUSTON | About once every 10 days, the Washington Nationals turn in the kind of effort that makes you wonder how it is that they have the worst record in baseball.

Squint just hard enough on these nights, and you’ll see an offense stacked at the top with dangerous hitters capable of changing a game with one swing and a young pitching staff that’s getting better by the week. There’s no possible way the sum of these parts could equal only 26 wins in 86 games, is there?

These are the nights on which manager Manny Acta, the team’s front office and the most optimistic Nationals fans build their hope for the future. Consistency, that magic elixir that transforms potential into progress, isn’t yet in regular supply in the District, which is why the Nationals on most nights are a disparate, underperforming collection of established veterans and unrefined youngsters.

But these nights, rare as they are, shoot just enough adrenaline into the Nationals to sustain them through a set of confounding losses.

The Nationals needed one of those performances on Saturday night, and they got it. In a 13-2 win over the Houston Astros, every starter had at least one hit. Two players had two hits, and another three had three or more.

Starter Craig Stammen, handed the Nationals’ best offensive performance of the season, cruised efficiently to his first career complete game with the help of some reliable glovework by the team’s infield. And Nick Johnson, Josh Willingham and Adam Dunn, in succession, blasted home runs that effectively ended the game.

Having lost the first five games of this road trip — three by one run and two in blowout fashion — the Nationals couldn’t have used an uplifting win more than they did Saturday night. They were coming off a 6-5 loss to the Astros where they’d battled back to take the lead before giving up two runs in the last two innings and seeing the potential go-ahead run thrown out at home in the ninth. Reliever Joe Beimel called the team’s propensity for losing games “beyond embarrassing,” and the Nationals looked like a team limping toward the All-Star break.

They looked like something else from the very beginning Saturday night. Washington got four hits and two runs off Astros lefty Mike Hampton in the first inning, though those totals could have been five and three, respectively, had Adam Dunn touched second base before heading home on Josh Bard’s nullified double.

Stammen made one of his only mistakes of the night in the first inning, walking Astros speedster Michael Bourn to start the game and giving Houston a chance to score a run without a base hit in the first.

But while the Astros tied the game at 2-2 in the bottom of the third, that was the last time this one would be in question. Washington dropped a blizzard of runs on Houston, scoring 11 from the fourth through the sixth innings. And this was all without All-Star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who was available for only pinch-hit duty after returning from his grandmother’s funeral in North Carolina.

The Nationals never needed their franchise player, mainly because their 3-4-5 lineup of Johnson, Willingham and Dunn, reconfigured to split two left-handed hitters up against Hampton, led the barrage.

They’d already combined for three huts by the sixth inning, when Johnson pulled a Felipe Paulino pitch just over the right-field wall and beyond Hunter Pence’s glove for his first homer since June 6. Willingham, batting .393 in his last 16 games, followed with a shot to the short porch in left field, and Dunn punched a 3-2 fastball over the left-field wall.

It was the first time since August 23, 1997, the franchise had back-to-back-to-back homers and just the second time it happened in the majors this year.

In his next at-bat — after Alberto Gonzalez had doubled for his fourth hit of the night and Stammen drove him in with a double — Willingham crushed a fastball from Jeff Fulchino so far that it shot through the arches in left field and landed in the concourse on the fly.

The right fielder has hit 11 homers in the last two months and is so hot the Nationals might want to consider lobbying for him as an injury replacement in the All-Star Game just so he doesn’t have to put a bat down for three days.

On this night, when the Nationals set season highs for runs, hits, extra-base hits and total bases, he wasn’t alone.

Just one of those nights.

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