The Washington Times - April 22, 2009, 12:18AM

Break up the Nationals! Two in a row! OK, so their record remains 3-10 and even though they’ve picked up two games on the Marlins in the last two nights, they still trail the NL East leaders by 7 1/2 games. That’s how big a hole they dug themselves.

But all’s well in NatsTown right now. The rotation has turned in six straight solid starts (five of them officially designated quality starts). The lineup is showing a lot of patience, and it’s paying off because they’re doing their most damage in the middle innings, when either the starter is running out of gas or the soft underbelly of the opposing bullpen is being exposed.


Most importantly, they’re getting good relief pitching once again. That’s six straight scoreless innings out of the bullpen the last two nights, with Joel Hanrahan preserving a one-run lead in the ninth each time.

This one got a little hairy, though. Hanrahan walked Matt Diaz on four pitches to open the inning, then served up a double to Jordan Schafer that left him in a second-and-third, no-out jam. But exhibiting the true mark of a top closer, he ignored all that and went out and retired the next three guys without allowing the runners to advance. He got Gregg Norton to hit a harmless comebacker. He got Kelly Johnson to hit a shallow fly ball to center. And then he got Yunel Escobar to … well, this is going to require some explanation…

Just before Escobar stepped to the plate, pitching coach Randy St. Claire came out to talk to Hanrahan and catcher Jesus Flores about the plan of attack against this hitter. Noting that Escobar is an aggressive hitter, St. Claire said they should throw a first-pitch slider. Hanrahan toed the rubber. Flores squatted down but did not give a sign because the two already knew what pitch would be thrown. The catcher prepared to have to block a slider in the dirt. Hanrahan fired and threw … a 94-mph fastball on the outside corner.

Luckily, Escobar scorched the ball right at second baseman Anderson Hernandez, who scooped it up and threw to first to end the game.

The Nats celebrated at the middle of the diamond, and Hanrahan let out a yell. Flores was not amused.

“I was waiting for the slider,” the catcher said. “He’s got a nasty slider, so I’ve got to be alive if the ball’s in the dirt or whatever. And he throws a fastball 94!”

Here is the ensuing exchange between the two:

Flores: “What the [expletive]?”

Hanrahan: “Yeah!”

Flores: “What do you mean yeah, mother [expletive]? What the [expletive]?”

Hanrahan: “I thought you said fastball first pitch.”

Flores: “No, we said slider.”

Hanrahan: “Oops, my bad.”

I suppose all’s well that ends well.