- The Washington Times - Monday, June 20, 2005

ARLINGTON, Texas — Trying to avoid a crushing weekend sweep, the Washington Nationals yesterday turned to an emergency starter and a previously unheard-of rookie reliever to lead them to victory.

Sun-Woo Kim, a last-minute substitution for scheduled starter Esteban Loaiza, came through with 42/3 impressive innings before succumbing to cramps in his right forearm. Rookie Travis Hughes, promoted from Class AAA New Orleans earlier in the day, picked up his old minor league teammate and earned his first career win.

Combined with some late offensive fireworks, the Nationals pulled out of Texas with a much-needed 8-2 victory over the Rangers at Ameriquest Field.

Washington (40-29) even gained a game back in the National League East during its evening flight to Pittsburgh. The Philadelphia Phillies’ 5-2 loss in Oakland gave the Nationals a 2-game lead heading into this week’s series against the Pirates.

All that despite dropping the weekend’s first two games in Texas, a fact that didn’t seem to faze the first-place Nationals.

“You look at the standings today, and we were still a game-and-a-half up, even with a two-game losing streak,” said center fielder Brad Wilkerson, who paced yesterday’s attack with three hits and four RBI. “It’s a much more positive thing. It’s easier to come out and win a baseball game. That’s the great thing about being in first place.”

Washington managed to extend its lead thanks to the performances of two unheralded pitchers: Kim and Hughes.

Informed Saturday night he would be starting in place of Loaiza, who has been slow to recover from the neck and back pain that bothered him during his last outing, Kim arrived at the park yesterday morning and began watching video of the Rangers’ vaunted lineup.

The game plan he came up with? “Try to keep the ball down,” he said.

Kim did just that, scattering three hits and a walk over his 42/3 innings while allowing only one run: Richard Hidalgo’s leadoff homer in the fifth.

“We got a pitcher out there today that didn’t just rely on fastballs,” said manager Frank Robinson, who watched John Patterson and Tony Armas Jr. get lit up by the Rangers the previous two nights. “This is an outstanding fastball-hitting ballclub and a good-hitting ballclub, period. If you don’t get them off the fastball, you get killed, just like we did the first couple days. Kim kept them off-balance today by mixing up his pitches.”

The Korean right-hander was in line to earn the win, but with the count 1-1 on Michael Young with two outs in the fifth, Kim motioned for Nationals trainer Tim Abraham. He had developed a cramp in his throwing arm after making 87 pitches in the searing Texas heat, so Robinson pulled him in the middle of the at-bat, before Kim could reach the requisite five innings needed to win.

“I wanted one more hitter,” Kim said. “But I couldn’t do it.”

So enter Hughes, a 27-year-old rookie who was called up only because Washington was desperate for a healthy arm in its bullpen after T.J. Tucker went on the disabled list with a bum elbow.

Though he pitched well at New Orleans, posting a 2.57 ERA and six saves in 32 games, Hughes was something of an afterthought in the Nationals’ farm system. A former top pick by — of all teams — the Rangers, Hughes was designated for assignment at the end of spring training and claimed three days later by Washington.

He admitted to being a little extra motivated to make his Nationals debut against his old teammates.

“I wanted to get in bad,” he said. “I wanted to face these guys.”

Hughes made the most of his opportunity. He retired four of the five batters he faced, striking out three (including Kevin Mench, one of his best friends in Texas). That made him the logical choice to earn his first career win, but because that decision is left up to the official scorer, Hughes didn’t know for sure until Robinson approached him afterward and handed him the game ball.

“That was pretty exciting,” he said.

Hughes’ 12/3 innings allowed Robinson to wait until the seventh to bring in setup man Luis Ayala and the ninth to bring in Gary Majewski.

“We needed that extra arm,” Robinson said. “We really needed that because that was the gap I had to get over to get to the other guys I needed. [Hughes] did a good job for me there.”

All of Washington’s hurlers were afforded the chance to pitch with a lead yesterday, thanks to two first-inning runs off four singles. The Nationals added another in the fourth on Wilkerson’s second hit of the day, then erupted for five in the eighth inning to blow this one wide open. Wilkerson provided the biggest hit of them all — a bases-loaded double off Jason Standridge — and Jamey Carroll provided one last bit of insurance with an RBI single up the middle — his third hit of the game — to send Washington out of town feeling good about itself again.

“The last two games, they beat us up pretty bad,” Carroll said. “It was huge to get the confidence back up going into the next series.”

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