- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 4, 2005

This was the formula that propelled the Washington Nationals to the top of the National League East earlier this season. Pitch well. Get timely hitting. Hand the game to the bullpen.

They just hadn’t been able to find that winning combination for some time.

Last night, at long last, the Nationals rediscovered the form that had eluded them during their previous 4-14 stretch. That resulted in a 3-1 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers before a crowd of 36,553 at RFK Stadium that went home happy for a change.

Those fans most likely were even happier when they learned the Atlanta Braves had suffered a rare loss, pushing Washington (57-50) within 41/2 games of the division leaders.

“One game doesn’t change it. We know one game doesn’t,” manager Frank Robinson said. “But it’s a start.”

It’s certainly better than the alternative, which lately has meant one-run loss after one-run loss. But there was no such misery last night. The Nationals rode home runs by Preston Wilson and Nick Johnson and withstood Tony Armas Jr.’s injury-abbreviated outing for a much-needed victory.

When Armas departed after five innings due to tightness in his right shoulder, Washington’s bullpen simply stepped in and tossed four innings of two-hit, shutout ball. Luis Ayala retired all six batters he faced in the sixth and seventh. Mike Stanton and Gary Majewski combined to get out of the eighth. And Chad Cordero overcame a fly ball to the warning track and a two-out single in the ninth to record his 36th save.

Just like old times.

“That’s exactly what we did in the first half,” Cordero said. “The pitchers have to realize that if we keep doing what we were doing in the first half, everything will be fine. We just have to remember what we did and go on and try to do that.”

Though he earned the win, Armas (6-5) never looked quite right. He surrendered a third-inning homer to Milton Bradley and upon returning to the dugout, he informed the team’s training staff that his shoulder was bothering him.

One inning later, Robinson got word, and by the time Armas returned for the fifth, it became obvious there was a problem.

“The fifth inning, he started to lose command a little bit,” catcher Gary Bennett said. “I just thought he was getting a little fatigued. I had no idea he was hurt at all.”

After that, Robinson pulled Armas, who has dealt with shoulder problems ever since he underwent major surgery in 2003. An examination by team doctors revealed tendinitis in his throwing shoulder. He’s officially listed as day-to-day, and all signs are that he’ll make his next scheduled start Tuesday in Houston — though the Nationals could choose to bypass him because of an upcoming off day.

“We’ll see,” Robinson said. “They think it’s no worse than it was earlier this year.”

Despite his early exit, Armas still improved to 5-0 at RFK thanks to the 2-1 lead he was given on Wilson’s fourth-inning homer.

Wilson had begun to come under scrutiny for his play of late. In his first 17 games with the Nationals, he hit just .220 with two homers, six RBI and 20 strikeouts. Along the way, he also lost his center field job to Brad Wilkerson and was being pushed by rookie Ryan Church for playing time in left.

Wilson acknowledged his discomfort at the plate, something that plagued him earlier in the season with Colorado.

“It’s been really inconsistent,” he said. “Some games it feels good, some at-bats it feels good. Some at-bats it doesn’t, some games it doesn’t. It hasn’t been steady as far as getting on a consistent roll.”

Even Wilson’s manager expressed his concern before the game. Said Robinson: “Right now, he looks like he’s confused.”

You could certainly make the argument that Wilson looked out of sorts in the second inning last night when, after doubling down the left-field line, he was picked off by Dodgers starter D.J. Houlton. The RFK crowd voiced its displeasure, letting Wilson hear it as he trudged back to the dugout.

Two innings later, those same fans were on their feet cheering Wilson as he trotted around the bases after homering off Houlton (4-5). Wilson’s two-run blast, one of the few to clear RFK’s distant center-field wall all season, gave the Nationals a 2-1 lead and perhaps was a sign that Wilson is emerging from that down cycle he’s been in.

“Tonight I felt it pretty good,” he said. “I was seeing the ball and putting decent swings on pitches I wanted to. I just have to get it to carry over to more at-bats, maybe another game.”

Robinson was cautiously optimistic.

“It’s one game. Let’s not get too full of it,” he said. “Not every night he’s going to do it. But we felt like he was capable of doing that when he walks up to home plate in any given at-bat. It was a big one for us tonight.”

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