- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 17, 2006

For all the heat Brian Schneider has come under in recent days, it should be noted that the Washington Nationals’ beleaguered catcher is in the midst of his hottest stretch at the plate all season.

Only three weeks ago, Schneider was hitting just .222. Combine that with a sub-par defensive performance by his lofty standards, and the 29-year-old was understandably frustrated, providing some sub-text for his surprising clubhouse meltdown Sunday afternoon.

Schneider, of course, has declared all that past history and vowed to turn his attention to a future that doesn’t look so dismal given his sudden turnaround with the bat.

Schneider was front and center in the Nationals’ 9-6 victory over the Atlanta Braves last night. He went 2-for-4, doubled during a four-run second inning and put on the finishing touches with a three-run homer in the seventh.

The weakest link in Washington’s lineup is now hitting .321 over his last 17 games, raising his season average to .239 and letting opposing pitchers know he’s no longer an easy out.

“I’d get a couple hits, and then I’d go two or three games without one,” Schneider said of his struggles before this upswing. “The ground I made up went right back down. It was frustrating. But pretty much since that West Coast trip [starting late last month], I’ve just been sticking with the same game plan.”

Or, as manager Frank Robinson put it succinctly, “He’s having quality at-bats.”

The same could be said of most in the Nationals’ lineup last night, which saw everyone but right fielder Austin Kearns reach base safely and give the RFK Stadium crowd of 28,094 plenty of reason to cheer.

Suddenly, Washington (53-67) has a chance to take three of four from the Braves by winning today’s series finale.

“Even though our record may be what it is, that doesn’t stop anyone from playing hard and doing what they can to help this team out,” Schneider said.

Of course, it helps a lot when the Nationals produce at the plate with the same kind of frequency they did last night against Atlanta ace John Smoltz and four relievers.

Washington struck early with a four-run, six-hit second inning — the kind of prolonged, methodical rally this club has rarely produced, particularly against a pitcher like Smoltz (10-6).

Not that it came easy for the Nationals, who nearly ran themselves out of the inning in bizarre fashion. They already had scored two runs and had men on first and second when Felipe Lopez ripped a line drive off the right-field fence. What could have been a two-run double, though, turned into chaos when pitcher Billy Traber inexplicably held up at third. By the time anyone realized it, Lopez was standing on second and Alfonso Soriano was trapped in no-man’s land, left to be tagged out.

When Traber returned to the dugout, Robinson asked him what happened.

“I told him, ‘I haven’t been on second base in a long time,’ ” the pitcher said. “I mean, honestly, I’m not a very good baserunner.”

Robinson laughed.

“What are you going to do?” the manager said. “He doesn’t make excuses.”

The Nationals didn’t let the baserunning gaffe slow them down. Ryan Zimmerman drove in Traber with a slow roller down the third-base line that he ultimately beat out with a head-first slide. Nick Johnson followed with an RBI single to right, capping the rally and giving Washington a 4-0 lead.

Traber (3-1) nearly gave it all back during a three-run fourth, even if he was let down by his defense, with Zimmerman throwing wildly for his 10th error of the season and second baseman Bernie Castro botching an easy double-play turn that allowed a run to score.

But Zimmerman saved the day, diving to his right on Smoltz’s smash down the line and firing to first to end the inning in style.

The rookie third baseman was in the middle of all kinds of important plays last night, both in the field and at the plate. A few minutes after ending the top of the fourth with his defensive gem, he clubbed his 16th homer of the season, a two-run shot to the gap in left-center that put the Nationals up 6-3.

And a couple of innings later, he turned into Andruw Jones’ personal target. The Braves slugger broke his bat on a slow grounder toward third, but a shard of the lumber came flying right at Zimmerman and nicked him in the left arm as the ball scooted into left field for an RBI single.

“There were a lot of things going on, pretty much anything you can expect in a game,” Zimmerman said. “I made an error. I made a diving play. I had a bat hit me. Struck out swinging at a ball. Home run. Sliding into first base.”

All in a night’s work at the ballpark.

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