Maybe the embarrassment one night earlier was just the wake-up call the slumping Washington Nationals needed.
Tony Armas Jr. pitched a seven-inning gem, and Carlos Baerga’s three-run, first-inning double helped the Nationals snap a three-game losing streak with a 4-2 victory over the Houston Astros last night before 42,680 at RFK Stadium.
The Nationals (55-43) were coming off a 14-1 drubbing by the Astros (50-47) on Friday. This win enabled the Nationals to maintain a four-game lead on the Philadelphia Phillies in the National League wild-card race and extend their margin to 4 1/2 games over the Astros. It also guaranteed they will retain at least a share of first place in the NL East. The Atlanta Braves, who were tied for first, played a late game in Arizona.
With his seven strong innings, Armas (5-4) took his record over .500 for the first time this season. Armas had a no-hitter through five innings, but that disappeared when Lance Berkman powered a 3-2 fastball over the right-field fence that narrowed the deficit to 4-2 in the sixth.
That was Armas’ only mistake. Joey Eischen and Gary Majewski pitched the eighth, and closer Chad Cordero came on in the ninth to pick up his major league-leading 34th save.
“We need [Armas] to be at his best the next 2 1/2 months of the season,” Nationals manager Frank Robinson said. “It’s hard to describe how badly we needed [last night’s win].”
Astros starter Brandon Backe (8-7) took the loss, which ended the Astros’ six-game road winning streak.
Armas lasted considerably longer this time out than in his last outing against the Colorado Rockies. Monday on a hot and humid night, Armas took himself out of the game in the top of the third inning because of dizziness and dehydration.
Overall, though, Armas had pitched very well on East Capitol Street, posting a 3-0 record with a 2.87 ERA in seven starts. And the Venezuelan right-hander couldn’t have asked for a better start to this game.
The Nationals finally scored some runs in the first inning after a prolonged batting slump that resulted in 12 losses in their previous 16 games. The Nationals erupted for four runs, their biggest first inning this season.
Baerga delivered the key blow with an assist from Astros rookie center fielder Willy Taveras. The veteran sliced a bases-loaded, two-out double into the gap in left-center that Taveras misplayed as Brad Wilkerson, Jose Guillen and Preston Wilson scored.
Taveras broke in on Baerga’s hit only to watch it sail over his head. Baerga, who has been a solid pinch hitter all season, had been 0-for-4 with the bases loaded.
Wilkerson, who was back in his leadoff spot for the first time in five games, opened the inning with a walk. Guillen then ripped a ground-rule double into the corner in left field that bounced around in the corner and then shot into the Nationals’ bullpen, striking reliever Sun-Woo Kim on the head.
“Nobody in the bullpen saw the ball,” Kim said.
With one out, Wilson walked to load the bases and set up Baerga. The double raised Baerga’s RBI total to 13 for the season.
It was a welcome moment for Baerga, whose wife, Miriam, underwent gall bladder surgery Friday at Washington Hospital Center. Baerga had been spending his nights at the hospital with his wife and part of his days at the ballpark.
The Nationals weren’t done in the first. Brian Schneider drove in Baerga with a single to Taveras in center. Looking to make amends for his fielding gaffe, Taveras fired high and wide to the plate in an attempt to nail Baerga. But Baerga slid away from Astros catcher Humberto Quintero’s tag and reached back with his right hand to touch the plate.