- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Washington Nationals’ bullpen has bailed its teammates out of tight jams all season. This, though, might have topped anything previously seen at RFK Stadium.

Clinging to a two-run lead against the Philadelphia Phillies last night, the Nationals watched as several relievers came on to preserve a 4-2 victory before a crowd of 25,575.

Clutch performances abounded, none more impressive than the escape act Ray King and Luis Ayala combined on to get out of a harrowing seventh inning.

Despite another strong start by Tim Redding, the Nationals were on the verge of another collapse. Reliever Saul Rivera had just surrendered an RBI single to Chris Coste, forcing manager Manny Acta to summon King from his bullpen to face Russell Branyan with the bases loaded and no outs.

Washington went into damage-control mode. Exchange runs for outs. Keep things from getting out of hand. But could Acta’s team really have thought about closing out the inning without a single run scoring?

“Of course, you think it,” catcher Brian Schneider said laughing, realizing how absurd that outcome sounded at the time.

Or perhaps not, for King came through. The veteran left-hander struck out Branyan on a 1-2 slider, then duplicated the feat against the right-handed-hitting Jimmy Rollins before departing to a standing ovation.

“Two huge outs,” Acta said. “Just a big lift for us.”

The Nationals weren’t totally out of the jam yet. Ayala still had to get Tadahito Iguchi to ground into a fielder’s choice.

So, to recap: When King entered, the bases were loaded with nobody out. When Ayala departed three batters later, no runner had advanced.

“That’s dynamite,” Redding said. “I mean, you can’t ask for anything better than that.”

Just for good measure, Ayala added a scoreless eighth that featured two more strikeouts. Throw in a perfect ninth inning from Chad Cordero, who earned his 27th save, and the Nationals had even more reason to talk up the majors’ best bullpen over the last seven weeks.

“I’ve been on teams that won. I’ve been on teams that lost,” King said. “This is probably the best group of bullpen guys I’ve played with in my seven years. We’ve got a bunch of guys in there that actually care about one another.”

No one was more grateful for the fine relief work last night than Redding, who turned in another fine start himself (six-plus innings of three-hit ball) to earn his first win since July 8.

Don’t mistake Redding’s lack of victories for lack of performance, because the right-hander has deserved better. With so much attention lavished upon the Nationals‘ cadre of young starters — Shawn Hill, John Lannan, Matt Chico, Joel Hanrahan — Redding has perhaps been overlooked.

The 29-year-old, though, has proved to be far more than a stop-gap and has perhaps forced club officials to start thinking about him as part of their future plans.

“He’s helping himself big-time,” Acta said. “He’s not just winning. He’s showing us stuff.”

With last night’s effort over, Redding (2-3, 2.88 ERA) has now lasted at least six innings in seven of his eight starts, allowing two runs or fewer five times.

His lone mistake last night — a 1-2 pitch to Jayson Werth that was deposited behind the left-field fence for a solo homer — hardly killed him. All Redding did after that was strike out four Phillies in succession en route to a seven-strikeout evening.

He even helped put himself in position to win with a two-run double down the left-field line in the second, only the sixth and seventh RBI of his career.

“I’m having a blast right now, I really am,” he said. “It took me almost 2½ years to get up here [following shoulder surgery]. I know everybody had me written off in spring training and then down in Columbus. I’m enjoying every day up here.”

Redding’s hit held up as the difference in the game for much of the night, until the Nationals struck for a pair more off rookie right-hander Kyle Kendrick (5-3) in the sixth, the big blow coming via an upper-deck homer by Ryan Church.

There were plenty of little things that contributed to this win, too, none more important to Acta than Austin Kearns beating out a potential double-play grounder in the second. That bit of hustle allowed Redding to come through with his hit later that inning.

“That’s the easiest part of the game: playing hard,” Kearns said.

Leave the difficult stuff to baseball’s best bullpen.

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