Sunday, June 4, 2006

MILWAUKEE — Momentum appears to be swinging the Washington Nationals’ way.

By winning 4-3 last night against the Milwaukee Brewers, the Nationals clinched their fourth series win in the last five.

“It’s almost back to normal. We’re watching some TV. We’re getting to listen to some music before games and after games, that comes with playing good ball,” catcher Brian Schneider said before the game. “Once you start to play better baseball, a lot of pressure is off a lot of people and you start to relax. That’s when you start playing your best — when everyone is relaxed in the clubhouse and whoever it is in the lineup is going to come to play every day.”

After starting the year with a disastrous first month (8-17 in April), the Nationals are playing better of late because of their improved pitching. The team has the seventh-best ERA in the National League (4.41).

And it all begins with their starting pitching. Since May 1, the Nationals are 11-5 when receiving a quality start, including seven wins in their last eight outings.

Staff ace Livan Hernandez (4-5, 5.10 ERA) and veteran right-hander Ramon Ortiz (4-4, 5.05) are pitching better. Hernandez, who won only once in his first nine starts, has now won three straight. Ortiz opened the season 0-4.

The Nationals are 15-10 when their starting pitching produces a quality start. In their past 10 games, the club’s starting pitchers have registered seven quality starts, and the Nationals are 7-3 in those 10 games, tied for the best record in the league in that span.

“What we’re doing is we’re playing better and it all starts with the starting pitching and then your defense and timely hitting,” Nationals manager Frank Robinson said. “We’re still not a big-scoring team, but the pitching sets the tone, the starting pitching.”

Escobar to Viera

Outfielder Alex Escobar, whose left hamstring has yet to heal, will head to the club’s Viera, Fla., spring training complex to continue his rehab. Escobar, who went on the 15-day disabled list May 22, isn’t likely to come off the DL tomorrow when he is eligible.

“I don’t want to rush into it and re-injure it again,” said Escobar, who will accompany injured right-handed reliever Santiago Ramirez to Viera. “I would rather take one more week than take a whole month out. I want to be smart about it, but I don’t want to lose too much time.”

Escobar and Ramirez will join right fielder Jose Guillen, who is also rehabbing his right hamstring. Robinson, who spoke to Guillen yesterday on the phone, said he will be ready to play in an extended spring game, either tomorrow or Tuesday.

Harris returns to majors

The Nationals are satisfied with the state of their pitching staff — for now. That’s why they called up infielder Brendan Harris instead of a pitcher yesterday after Ramirez went on the 15-day DL.

“It’s an indication,” Robinson said. “For the time being anyway, we feel like we can make do without the other reliever down there and take advantage of position players.”

Harris offers Robinson a comfort zone. This is Harris’ second promotion of the season. In seven April games with the Nationals, Harris went 1-for-8 with a walk. In 40 games at Class AAA New Orleans, Harris batted .333 with four home runs and 23 RBI and 11 doubles.

The only reason Harris was optioned back to New Orleans on April 27 was because the Nationals were desperate for pitching and brought up left-hander Mike O’Connor. Harris knows he was just a victim of circumstance his first time up.

“It’s nice to know that you have their [Nationals management] support and you’re in their plans and they think a lot of you and they give you a promise that you’ll be back,” the 25-year-old said.

Robinson said he’ll use Harris to give rookie third baseman Ryan Zimmerman an occasional day off.

June 9 game blacked out

Saturday’s game against the Philadelphia Phillies at RFK Stadium will not be televised anywhere — including MASN. FOX was originally going to televise the game regionally, but later decided not to air it. Since FOX locked in the 1:20 p.m. start time, no other television outlet is allowed to televise the game.

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

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