- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Washington Nationals have won so few times this season, it’s doubtful they’ve developed an actual gameplan for victory.

But if manager Frank Robinson and Co. want to come up with a formula that ensures success, they might want to save a tape of last night’s 4-1 win over the Houston Astros.

The method to the Nationals’ madness was pretty simple: seven standout innings from their starter pitcher (Ramon Ortiz). Manufacture the go-ahead run on back-to-back sacrifices from their No. 4 and 5 hitters (Nick Johnson and Jose Guillen). Add insurance back-to-back homers from Daryle Ward and Alfonso Soriano. And top it off with two scoreless innings from relievers Gary Majewski and Chad Cordero, sending everyone home happy.

“That was a complete game and effort there,” Robinson said. “That’s the way we have to play.”

If only the Nationals (17-29) could do it every night. They’re starting to show signs of better play, winning three of their last four, but they’ve yet to show it on a consistent basis.

The crowd of 23,189 at RFK Stadium certainly appreciated the home team’s effort last night. The Nationals were so efficient, they needed only two hours and eight minutes to knock off the Astros on another gorgeous evening at the ballpark.

Ortiz was most responsible for that, churning out seven innings of one-run ball to earn his second victory in as many starts after going winless in his first seven. The right-hander made just one mistake: a 2-2 pitch to Morgan Ensberg in the sixth that landed over the left-field fence to tie the game at 1-1.

Otherwise, Ortiz (2-4) was brilliant, escaping a bases-loaded jam in the fourth and leaving after the seventh having thrown an economical 92 pitches.

“That was a very fine ballgame he pitched,” Robinson said.

The difference between the early season Ortiz and the current version might be his willingness to ease up on his fastball, which often tops 95 mph. Last night, he said he downshifted a gear, threw in the low 90s and focused more on locating his pitches down in the strike zone.

“It’s better,” he said. “It works better.”

Ortiz left the game with a 2-1 lead, which quickly became a 4-1 advantage, thanks to Ward and Soriano, who each took Houston reliever Russ Springer deep in the bottom of the eighth. Ward’s pinch-hit homer landed about 10 rows deep in the upper deck down the right-field line. Two pitches later, Soriano belted his team-leading 16th homer to center field, adding to the Nationals’ lead.

That was plenty of cushion for Washington, which got a scoreless inning of setup work from Majewski and a scoreless ninth from Cordero, who saved his sixth game.

“Just like last year,” said Majewski, who has allowed just one earned run in May after giving up nine in April. “We scratch here and there, get a run or two, just do what we have to do to take advantage of the other team’s mistakes.”

The Nationals’ late fireworks came after a mostly futile night at the plate against rookie Fernando Nieve, who allowed just two hits through his first six innings (one of them a solo homer to Damian Jackson, the veteran utilityman’s third in his last three starts).

Ortiz gave the run right back on Ensberg’s sixth-inning homer, but his teammates came to the rescue by manufacturing the go-ahead run in the seventh.

Jose Vidro sent a deep fly to center field that glanced off Willy Taveras’ glove for a leadoff double. That brought up Johnson, the cleanup hitter mired in an 0-for-13 slump. He took ball one, fouled the next pitch off and then glanced down at third-base coach Tony Beasley for the sign.

Johnson didn’t even blink when he realized he was being asked to lay down his first sacrifice bunt in three years.

“I was thinking about it when I was walking up there,” he said. “Do what it takes to get the guy over. It don’t matter. You’ve got to execute.”

Johnson did. He dropped the bunt perfectly down the first-base line, allowing Vidro to move up to third. Now Guillen, the .215-hitting outfielder who missed the last five games with a hamstring strain, stepped to the plate.

Too often this season he’s fallen into the trap of trying to yank the ball toward the left-field bullpen, but on this occasion, Guillen played it smart. He went the other way with Nieve’s pitch, lofted a fly ball down the right-field line and then watched as Vidro tagged up and slid around catcher Brad Ausmus’ swipe to give the Nationals a 2-1 lead the old-fashioned way.

“It was great to see that,” Vidro said. “That’s the way we won last year, doing all the little things. Hopefully it’s time to start playing better.”

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

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