- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 8, 2005

These are the kind of games that test the mettle of the Washington Nationals, the kind that prove whether this underdog ballclub has what it takes to withstand the rigors of a season-long pennant race.

Fresh off a wildly successful week against the Atlanta Braves and Florida Marlins, the first-place Nationals kicked off the second portion of their 13-game homestand last night against the Oakland Athletics in what is called a “trap” game — one that would have been easy for Washington to overlook and lose with a less than full effort.

Anyone who has been watching all season, though, knows that’s not in this team’s character. And so few should have been surprised by the Nationals’ 2-1 victory over Barry Zito and the A’s before 26,879 at RFK Stadium.

Nor should they be surprised how Washington (32-26) pulled this one out: with their usual, late-game heroics.

“I’ve never seen a ballclub like this before,” said manager Frank Robinson, whose team has 22 come-from-behind victories and is 13-7 in one-run games. “Each night, it just seems to be the same script: ‘OK, boys, it’s the sixth inning now. Let’s wake up. Let’s go to work.’ I don’t know what it is. I’m not going to tamper with it. We’re having success, so we’ll leave it alone and not worry about it.

“But it’s certainly not easy on the stomach.”

No, it’s not, though you wouldn’t know it from the ho-hum manner in which the Nationals go about their daily business.

Trailing 1-0 for five innings and unable to touch Zito’s renowned assortment of breaking balls? No problem. Just wait for Nick Johnson to drill his eighth homer of the season — a two-run shot in the bottom of the sixth.

Putting two men on base in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings? Never fear. Just watch as Washington’s bullpen calmly pitches out of each jam for the club’s fifth straight win.

“These one-run games are tough to win,” said closer Chad Cordero, who earned his 16th save by getting Mark Kotsay to ground out with two on in the ninth. “But we’ve been able to come through and pull these out.”

Cordero’s cohorts in the bullpen did their best to turn this one into a thriller yet still assure a victory for starter Tony Armas Jr., who came through with six solid innings.

It began in the seventh, when Gary Majewski put two men on but got Kotsay to ground out to kill the rally. It continued in the eighth, when left-hander C.J. Nitkowski put two men on of his own (he’s now failed to retire six of the nine left-handed batters he has faced this season). Luis Ayala bailed him out, though, coaxing an inning-ending double play from Bobby Crosby that was capped by Johnson’s nifty short-hop scoop at first.

“That was a tough one,” Johnson said. “The [Oakland runner] is on second, and if the ball gets by me, it’s a tie ballgame. I took a chance. I went for it.”

After a week’s worth of high-pressure, down-to-the-wire games against division rivals, Robinson was worried about his team’s intensity level for a casual Tuesday night contest with the A’s.

He was right to be concerned. The Nationals were lifeless early on, flailing away at Zito (2-7) for five innings. The former Cy Young Award winner may not have his typical numbers, but he has pitched well lately and continued the trend in his first appearance against the Nationals/Expos franchise.

But as the game wore on and Washington’s hitters began to get a feel for Zito, things finally started coming together.

Jose Guillen led off the sixth with a walk. Moments later, Johnson crushed Zito’s first pitch to the cavernous right-center gap at RFK. It easily cleared the wall to the left of the 380-foot sign, and suddenly Washington had a 2-1 lead.s

“He’s a very good pitcher, and that’s a big curveball,” said Johnson, who also doubled off Zito. “I was just trying to get a fastball and put something on it.”

Johnson has been carrying the Nationals’ offense for some time now. Through the first eight games of this homestand, he’s hitting .560 (14-for-25) with seven RBI and six extra-base hits.

“He’s coming up with some big hits for us, key hits in tough situations. And he doesn’t care who’s out there [pitching],” Robinson said. “Right now, he’s in a very good groove. I hope I don’t jinx him and he keeps going.”

Johnson’s homer was enough run support for Armas (2-3), who turned in his second straight impressive start, allowing one run on four hits over six innings. The right-hander, beginning to show signs that he has fully recovered from shoulder and groin injuries, surrendered a first-inning run on Jason Kendall’s single and Scott Hatteberg’s RBI double. But he battled through his next five innings, escaping unscathed despite throwing 110 pitches.

“We’re winning, and my team’s doing a great job behind me,” Armas said. “That’s what counts.”

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