- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 29, 2009

MILWAUKEE | All season, the Washington Nationals have operated under the belief that baseball’s accounting books eventually would balance out. The balls falling under their gloves finally would land safely in the leather, the bullpen held together with chewing gum and fishing lines eventually would stay in one piece and the contributions of a workmanlike offense at last would lead to wins.

They’ve turned it into a mantra, in one form or another, so often that when their record slid 20, then 30, then 40 games under .500, they began to look delusional.

And while Tuesday’s 8-3 win over the Milwaukee Brewers and four-game winning streak - tying the team’s longest of the season - won’t come close to correcting four months of ineptitude, it might signal the long-promised hot streak is finally here.

One night after pummeling the Brewers 14-6, the Nationals did nothing nearly as dramatic in beating Milwaukee for the second straight time. Whereas Monday included historic feats, Tuesday brought simple, quiet efficiency. But seeing that at this point in the season might be more important to the Nationals’ development than getting to parade Josh Willingham and his back-to-back grand slams all over national TV.

“I think we’re just feeling this is what we could’ve been doing all along,” interim manager Jim Riggleman said. “It’s hard to play errorless baseball. It’s hard to have everything going your way, and we finally got some breaks.”

The chief catalyst in Tuesday’s win was Collin Balester, the sometimes-promising, sometimes-confounding prospect who made his major league debut about 13 months ago and has been working to corral his sizable potential ever since.

Filling in for Jordan Zimmermann, Balester turned in what might have been his best start since last July. He threw 93 pitches in six innings, 60 of them for strikes, and allowed just two runs on five hits.

Balester struck out only three, but his start had the pitch-to-contact efficiencies that pitching coach Steve McCatty loves, and he made it through a start without a walk for just the fourth time in 17 big league outings.

“In Triple-A, I tried to work on staying taller and trying to drive the ball down in the zone,” Balester said. “It gives me more confidence to just throw it in the zone and let them get themselves out.”

Balester had a lead handed to him when Nyjer Morgan smacked Carlos Villanueva’s second pitch of the game to center for the second leadoff homer of his career.

But Balester gave back the lead when J.J. Hardy drove in Corey Hart with a single in the second.

On the first at-bat of the fourth inning, however, Adam Dunn gave the Nationals the lead for good with one of those titanic blasts that only a player such as Dunn can deliver, a shot that flashed off his bat cleanly and squarely, then quickly rocketed out of view.

It bounced off the concourse in right field, hopped a fence and landed in the parking lot beyond right-center field, where a teenager camped out in the lot for player autographs grabbed the ball. The “Major” in Major League Baseball had been smudged off of the ball. Officially, the blast was measured at 445 feet.

“That ball was crushed,” Balester said. “Once he hit it, everybody was screaming in the dugout. That was one of the farthest balls I’ve seen.”

Willingham and Willie Harris followed with singles, then Wil Nieves added one two batters later. Morgan split the game open with his two-run single, scoring Harris and Nieves and giving him a career-high three RBI.

The Nationals had four runs by the time the inning was over and got three more when Cristian Guzman homered in the eighth, putting Washington up 8-2, giving the Nationals 38 runs in their last four games, and erasing almost any chance the Brewers had of coming back.

The thread holding everything together was again the Nationals’ defense, unspectacular but also free of the rally-sustaining gaffes Washington committed with such spectacular regularity earlier in the season.

They were without an error for the fourth straight game after committing four in a 6-2 loss to the Padres on Friday that left Riggleman tearing into the Nationals for their effort.

The task for the Nationals now is to make four-game winning streaks something less than an extraordinary occurrence. It took them 100 games to get two, while they’ve had seven losing streaks of four games or more.

But for the Nationals to nudge themselves away from laughingstock status, they had to get a start somewhere. This might be it.

“This is what I expected,” Dunn said. “I expected to score a lot of runs, get good pitching and win a lot of games.”