- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 17, 2007

As Matt Chico stood in the visitors’ clubhouse at Turner Field six days ago, his first career loss just in the books, the Washington Nationals left-hander vowed to learn from the experience.

Chico had been beaten by the Atlanta Braves, and though he was only partly to blame for that, the 23-year-old rookie still was beating himself up over a couple of ill-timed and ill-placed pitches.

“Those are the things I need to learn,” he said at the time.

Given a chance to do it over again last night against the same Braves lineup, Chico proved he’s got some brains to go along with that left arm of his. Despite a harrowing first inning in which he loaded the bases and despite issuing five walks, he kept Atlanta’s vaunted sluggers in check and led the Nationals to a 5-1 win at RFK Stadium.

Thanks to some timely hits from his teammates — including three from Dmitri Young on the night the veteran first baseman wore Jackie Robinson’s No. 42 — Chico fulfilled a childhood dream.

“I grew up watching the Braves on TV, so I always wanted to throw against them,” the Southern California native said. “Seeing Chipper [Jones], I always wanted to get my first win off him. It was one of those where I thought I’d do a little better, maybe go seven [innings]. But I’ll take it.”

The hearty few who turned out on cold, windy and rainy night at RFK — announced attendance was 16,316, but there couldn’t have been more than 1,000 fans in their seats when the home team took the field — wound up getting a first-hand glimpse at a resurgent Washington club. The Nationals (4-9) have won three of their last four and have done so in the kind of crisp, clean fashion manager Manny Acta had been envisioning since the day he took the job.

In addition to another solid start from his much-maligned rotation (which has posted a 2.27 ERA in its last seven games), Acta got clutch hits from Young (3-for-4, two doubles) and Ryan Zimmerman (2-for-4) and lights-out work from relievers Saul Rivera, Jon Rauch and Chad Cordero (who retired 12 of the 13 men they faced).

“I think this last week has kind of shown what kind of team we can be,” Zimmerman said. “We can be competitive with all of these teams. We’re not going to win 100 games, but we don’t have a bad team here.”

Collective efforts aside, this night belonged to Chico, who has made the leap from Class AA and displayed the kind of mental toughness that could make him a fixture in the major leagues for years to come.

In his last start Tuesday in Atlanta, Chico (1-1) battled but made a couple of crucial mistakes to a couple of big-time sluggers: Andruw Jones and Jeff Francoeur. This time around, he made a mental note not to give into the heart of the Braves’ lineup, and he delivered.

“The biggest thing I wanted to do was try to eliminate the mistakes,” he said. “I thought I did that tonight. I made some other ones that didn’t hurt me with the walks, but … I wanted to stay away from that big hit.”

The end result was a pitching line that featured five walks, a hit batter, a 37-pitch first inning, yet somehow only one run allowed.

“I mean, he goes out there and walks five guys, doesn’t even record a strikeout,” Acta said. “But whenever he had to make a pitch, especially in that first inning, he did it.”

Chico also benefited from some early offensive support. For the third straight game, the Nationals scored multiple runs in the game’s first three innings, this time getting four straight two-out hits off left-hander Chuck James in the bottom of the third. The biggest of them came from Zimmerman, who had been mired in a 1-for-22 drought that dropped his average to a paltry .177.

The young third baseman, though, knew he had been hitting the ball hard for the last week and it would only be a matter of time before those balls started falling in for hits. And sure enough, Zimmerman laced a 1-2 pitch from James into right field for a run-scoring single and only his third RBI of the year to put Washington ahead.

“That was the first time I’d talked to [first base coach] Jerry [Morales] in a long time,” he said.

Moments later, Young drilled a double to the left-center gap, scoring Ronnie Belliard and Zimmerman and giving Washington a 3-0 lead that held up as the night played out and ensured Chico would leave RFK with some cherished memorabilia.

The rookie was given a game ball and both lineup cards, which he plans to frame and hang in his home. Considering the way he fought back to earn his first career win, those were only small tokens of the Nationals’ appreciation.

“I think me and him are a lot alike, actually,” said Zimmerman, who is a year younger than Chico. “Not too many things faze him. He battles, and I think a lot of us respect him for that.”

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