- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 8, 2006

ATLANTA — Three weeks ago, the mere suggestion that the Washington Nationals might be on the verge of turning their season around would have been construed as blasphemy.

And if someone had suggested Ramon Ortiz would be one of the keys to that turnaround? The audacity of that statement couldn’t have been measured in words.

Yet on a warm June night at Turner Field, the Nationals authored the latest shocking chapter to their rise from the dead. And sure enough, Ortiz was right in the middle of it all, serving as leading man in Washington’s 5-2 win over the Atlanta Braves, to the astonishment of … well, everyone.

“It’s just been kind of unbelievable, really,” manager Frank Robinson said after Ortiz won his fifth straight start. “It’s like somebody went poof! and he’s a different person out there on the mound.”

The same can be said for the Nationals as a whole. On May 17, they stood a season-low 14 games under .500 with no reason for hope. Since then, they’ve gone 14-6.

Washington (27-33) still hasn’t climbed all the way out of its season-opening hole, but for the first time in a long time, players can see a glimpse of daylight.

“It’s a very long way to go, but you’ve got to start somewhere,” catcher Brian Schneider said. “And this is a great start for us: 14-6, that’s a great way to start.”

Last night’s victory before 32,001 capped a stellar road trip for the Nationals, who bounced back from two opening losses in Philadelphia to finish 6-3 on the lengthy jaunt.

They’ll return home tonight to open their longest homestand to date — 11 games at RFK Stadium against the Phillies, Colorado Rockies and New York Yankees — with spirits as high as they’ve been all season.

“Right now we’re in a positive frame of mind,” said pinch-hitter Daryle Ward, who provided another clutch hit last night with a two-run double in the eighth. “I think we have a chance to compete with anybody in the league.”

If they keep playing like this, they might. And if Ortiz keeps pitching like this (62/3 innings, two runs), the veteran right-hander might yet prove to be the dynamite starter Washington general manager Jim Bowden was hoping for when he signed him over the winter.

Three weeks ago, Ortiz was the poster child for the Nationals’ failures. After getting pounded by these same Braves for six runs May12, his record stood at 0-4, his ERA was 6.30 and his future in Washington looked shaky at best.

In five starts since, he has been practically unhittable, going 5-0 with a 3.03 ERA and re-establishing himself as a major league pitcher.

“I’m not surprised,” Ortiz said. “Because in baseball, you never know. I never put my head down. I know I’ve got good stuff. I don’t want to change anything. I want to keep going like that.”

Ortiz’s effort last night was enough to topple John Smoltz, the Braves future Hall of Famer who had been nearly automatic against the Montreal/Washington franchise: 10-0 with a 2.10 ERA over his last 19 starts.

But after five tense scoreless innings, Washington broke through against the veteran ace. Rookie Ryan Zimmerman laced a two-out double to left-center to score Nick Johnson with the game’s first run. Moments later, Marlon Anderson drove a high slider from Smoltz into the right-field bleachers to make it 3-0.

“[Smoltz’s streak] is pretty amazing, being in the same division for that long,” Anderson said. “It’s big mentally. But truthfully, there’s so many new guys in here that most probably didn’t know about it.”

Anderson’s homer didn’t assure victory, though, because Ortiz hit a wall after that. He allowed an RBI single to Adam LaRoche in the sixth, then a solo homer to Pete Orr followed by Marcus Giles’ triple with two outs in the seventh.

The Giles triple actually proved to be a blessing for the Nationals. Outfielders Damian Jackson and Marlon Byrd collided on the play, and Jackson wound up in a heap on the ground after getting the wind knocked out of him. By the time he had recovered, reliever Gary Majewski was good and warm in the bullpen and ready to take over for Ortiz.

“I needed that little extra time,” he said.

Majewski sure looked jacked-up, because he entered and blew away Edgar Renteria on a 96 mph fastball at the knees, ending the inning and preserving the 3-2 lead.

Ward’s clutch double in the eighth (in which he worked the count full with the bases loaded and then went the other way to drop the ball down the left-field line) gave the Nationals some cushion, not that Chad Cordero needed it. The closer mowed through the Braves in order in the ninth to earn his 11th save (eighth straight) and put an emphatic stamp on Washington’s turnaround road trip.

“To come back and take two out of three here in Atlanta, that’s not something we do a whole lot here,” Anderson said. “Nobody does that a whole lot here. … You go 7-3 at home, 6-3 on the road, you can make up a lot of ground doing that.”

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

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