- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 9, 2009

PHOENIX — Manny Acta has now spent the better part of a month mixing and matching just about every combination of relievers at his disposal in an attempt to find one capable of preserving a Washington Nationals victory.

Perhaps, just perhaps, Acta has finally discovered the key.

Over the last two nights, the Washington manager has entrusted the game to a quartet of veteran relief pitchers: Joe Beimel, Julian Tavarez, Ron Villone and Kip Wells.

It’s an unlikely assortment of journeymen, castoffs and reclamation projects, but for now it seems to be working. Thanks to some effective performances from those sage relievers, the Nationals have now won four of their last five completed games.

Their latest triumph — a tense, 5-4 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks Friday night — required scoreless innings from both Tavarez and Wells. Each was handed the ball with a one-run lead, and each departed with the lead intact.

Combined with a solid effort from starter Shairon Martis (who improved to 4-0) and some timely clutch hits, Washington earned only its third one-run victory in eight tries this season.

Too often, these close ballgames have ended in loss because Nationals relievers have been unable to keep the opposition from scoring. But over the last week, Acta has begun entrusting the eighth and ninth innings only to the veterans on his staff, and the move has paid dividends.

“They’re not lights-out yet, let’s put it that way,” Acta said. “But they’re getting better, and they’re experienced guys. … Those guys still have good stuff.”

Said outfielder Adam Dunn: “Our back ends looking a lot better.”

Villone, Beimel and Wells secured Thursday nights 11-9 win in Los Angeles. With Beimel unavailable Friday after throwing 40 pitches in that previous win, Acta turned to Tavarez to pitch the eighth and Wells to again pitch the ninth.

The result was two relatively clean innings. Tavarez allowed a one-out single to Eric Byrnes, who then stole second but was gunned down trying to steal third as well to kill a potential rally. Wells retired the side in the ninth, striking out Justin Upton and Mark Reynolds in succession to earn the first save of his 11-year career.

“I try not to over-prepare for it or heighten it anymore,” Wells said. “Obviously, as an individual, you know you don’t have a save in your career. … But I got into a rhythm and started locating the ball pretty well and got three outs.”

With several front-office executives — including acting general manager Mike Rizzo and scouting director Dana Brown — some 350 miles to the west watching presumptive No. 1 draft pick Stephen Strasburg throw a no-hitter in his final home start for San Diego State, the Nationals witnessed another impressive effort from another young right-hander.

Coming off a brilliant, complete-game victory over the St. Louis Cardinals last weekend, Martis reverted back to merely adequate form. He hardly dominated an Arizona lineup that entered with a .225 team batting average (worst in the majors) but neither did he come up with a subpar effort.

The rookie right-hander did have to constantly pitch his way out of jams, putting at least one man on base in each of his six innings. But only three of those runners wound up scoring, thanks to some deft pitches by Martis when he needed it most.

Never known as a power pitcher, the 22-year-old reached back and blew away several Diamondbacks hitters. He recorded six strikeouts, including three with runners in scoring position.

“That’s what Ive been working for,” he said of his 4-0 record. “It’s not a big surprise for me.”

Martis departed with one out and two on in the sixth, unable to finish the inning but and earn a quality start but still able to notch another win, a notable accomplishment for a young pitcher who along with fellow rookie Jordan Zimmermann have helped stabilize Washingtons rotation.

“It’s been very encouraging, because none of them has folded and crumbled whenever things are not going good,” Acta said. “Even when they don’t have their best stuff, they go at least five-plus [innings]. Those guys have pitched very well for us.”

An assist, though, had to go to reliever Garrett Mock, who took over for Martis and coaxed a flyout from Felipe Lopez (after the ex-National had hits in his first three at-bats) and a popout from Chris Young to end the inning and preserve Washingtons 5-3 lead.

The Nationals got to that point thanks to a sustained offensive attack that boasted several clutch hits. Cristian Guzman kickstarted things with a triple off the right-field wall in the second inning, a deep blast that brought two runs home. Solo homers by Dunn and Jesus Flores in the third and fourth innings, respectively, added to the lead and provided Martis with some cushion.

Of course, few leads have been safe for the Washington bullpen this season. And with that units most-effective member unavailable Friday, that meant another tense night at the ballpark for Acta and Co.

Perhaps, though, the Nationals have found the answer to their woes from a most-unlikely group of veteran relievers.

“We’ve got a pretty decent assortment of guys,” Wells said. “At this point, you just try to do what you can as an individual, and hopefully that will help the team.”

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