- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 1, 2006

PHILADELPHIA — They are perhaps the Philadelphia Phillies’ three best hitters, a trio of left-handers who would frighten any opposing pitcher, especially in the bandbox that is Citizens Bank Park.

So when Mike Stanton mowed right through Chase Utley, Bobby Abreu and Ryan Howard in the eighth — the key inning in the Washington Nationals’ 3-2 victory yesterday — the veteran reliever deserved every word of praise heaped upon him.

“That was huge. Huge,” manager Frank Robinson said after Stanton struck out the three sluggers in succession. “He couldn’t have been any better. Best he’s looked all year, as a matter of fact. He did it just like you’d draw it up on the drawing board.”

The Nationals couldn’t have scripted that inning much better. Truth be told, they couldn’t have scripted the entire game much better.

Facing what Robinson said beforehand was a “must-win” situation after losing to the Phillies the previous two nights, Washington executed to perfection before a crowd of 30,386 on a warm weekday afternoon.

Livan Hernandez churned out his fourth straight quality start, allowing two runs over seven innings to win his third straight. Alfonso Soriano paced the offense with a two-run homer in the third and the go-ahead RBI single in the seventh. And Stanton and Chad Cordero combined to finish off the Phillies, with Cordero escaping a two-on, one-out jam in the ninth to earn his eighth save.

Because of all that, the Nationals (22-32) managed to win a one-run game for only the third time in 12 tries this year.

“That’s a big win for us,” shortstop Royce Clayton said. “It gives us a little confidence as far as winning some close ballgames and not quite depending on getting seven or eight runs.”

Three runs (all off Soriano’s bat) were enough yesterday. The unconventional leadoff man capped off a torrid month by tagging a hanging curveball from Philadelphia’s Cory Lidle (4-5) into the left-field bleachers in the third. It was Soriano’s 19th homer of the season (third-most in baseball) and his 12th in May (setting a club record).

“He gives us a spark,” Robinson said. “It seems like when he does some things in a ballgame, we do things and we have a chance to win.”

That’s a fact. The Nationals are now 11-6 when Soriano homers in a game, 11-26 when he doesn’t.

Soriano’s seventh-inning single yesterday, though, might have been more important than the home run. With the game tied 2-2 and a runner on second, he sent a liner back up the middle and watched as rookie Mike Vento eluded the tag at the plate to score the go-ahead run.

“I got the big hit,” Soriano said. “But Livan pitched a great game.”

Hernandez surrendered solo homers to Aaron Rowand and David Dellucci but otherwise checked the Phillies to improve to 4-5 and further erase the memory of his awful start to the season. In his first nine starts, Hernandez was 1-5 with a 6.04 ERA. Over his last three, he’s 3-0 with a 2.57 ERA.

“He’s the leader of this pitching staff,” Robinson said. “He sets the tone.”

The big right-hander attributes his turnaround to improved mechanics after overcoming last season’s right knee injury. That has allowed him to be more precise with his pitch location, and the results have been dramatic.

“Early in the season, the knee was not feeling great and I changed my mechanics,” Hernandez said. “I’m getting my mechanics back again. If you don’t have your mechanics, you’re going to miss a lot of pitches.”

Hernandez needed only 96 pitches to get through seven innings yesterday, chump change for the veteran workhorse. But with the trio of left-handed hitters due up for the Phillies, Robinson made the call to the bullpen for Stanton.

With fellow veteran lefty Joey Eischen now out for the season with a torn rotator cuff, Stanton figures to be called upon a lot more in these situations. If he performs the way he did yesterday, he might wind up appearing in 100 games before the season’s over.

Stanton wasted no time recording his three outs. He struck out Utley swinging at a 1-2 pitch. He started Abreu off with a back-breaking curveball, then got him flailing at a 2-2 pitch. And he got ahead of Howard as well, catching the dangerous cleanup man looking at a 2-2 fastball on the inside corner.

“It’s something that we all strive to do,” Stanton said. “Some days, you just have good command, and I was able to put the ball where I wanted to today.”

The only thing left was for Cordero to finish off the ninth, which he did despite a few harrowing moments. With one out, Dellucci doubled off the wall in center. Abraham Nunez then drew a walk, bringing slugger Pat Burrell off the bench with a chance to win the game as a pinch-hitter.

That’s when Cordero really buckled down. He got ahead in the count to Burrell and got him to ground to first base for the second out. With the tying run at third and winning run at second, he got David Bell to hit a harmless foul pop to first, then pumped his fist as Nick Johnson hauled it in to cap a well-played, crisp ballgame by the Nationals.

“My inning may not have been as quick or as good as [Stanton’s] was,” Cordero said. “But it’s still good to get the job done.”

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To

submit a question, go to the Sports Page


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