- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 5, 2007

Barring something really crazy, the Washington Nationals won’t win their division. The wild card is a long shot, too.

Otherwise, things could not be better for a team that at the start of the year was being mentioned as one of the historically worst in baseball history. Now the Nationals seem utterly determined to achieve respectability, and they appear to be getting there.

Ripping into a struggling the St. Louis Cardinals, who bear no resemblance to last year’s World Series champions, the Nationals won their season-high fifth straight game last night at RFK Stadium. The 12-1 victory was marked by rookie right-hander Joel Hanrahan’s second strong start and first career victory and a wealth of offense that included three home runs, two by third baseman Ryan Zimmerman.

It was the most runs the Nationals have scored at home all year, and the victory pushed their record to 41-35 since May 11. They are but a half-game away from escaping last place in the National League East for the first time since April 21. Although they are 10 games under .500, there is a strong belief among the team that a break-even season is at least attainable.

The Nationals reached a .500 record at home and there is even talk of finishing .500 for the season, a remarkable feat considering their 9-25 start and accompanying predictions of doom, not to mention a fair amount of snickering, throughout the baseball world.

“It would have been very easy to give up but we wouldn”t let each other do it,” catcher Brian Schneider said.

Said Zimmerman, who hit his 16th and 17th homers of the year and is red-hot after a slow first half: “We feel like we can win every game. It shows what happens if you play like a team and put all the pieces together.”

One of those pieces is Hanrahan, who had a no-decision in his big league debut last week in New York and gave the Nationals yet another strong outing from a heretofore unsung pitcher. He worked five innings and gave up one run, and also belted a two-run double. Saul Rivera came on the sixth to work out of a jam while the outcome was still at issue.

Exulting in his first big-league win, Hanrahan, 25, who spent 7½ seasons in the minors before getting called up on July 28, said, “I was wondering if I’d ever get it done.”

Hanrahan yielded a solo home run in the third to second baseman Adam Kennedy, who began the game with just two homers and found himself batting ninth in the order, behind starting pitcher Joel Pineiro, a career 2-for-24 hitter. Cardinals manager Tony La Russa has batted pitchers eighth before when trying to shake things up, and the Cardinals, playing without slugging first baseman Albert Pujols because of his sore right elbow, are in dire need of something. Anything.

Meanwhile, first-year Nationals manager Manny Acta could relax.

“I just told one of my friends I finally had a day off from managing,” he said. “I had to bring Saul in there to shut down that inning, but it was the first time I could lay back and wait for 27 outs. That was nice for my brain cells.”

The Nationals scored five runs in the fourth, getting a solo shot by Zimmerman into the left field upper deck in left field, an RBI single from center fielder Nook Logan (three runs, three hits) and Hanrahan’s double. That made it two extra base hits in two games for Hanrahan, who tripled against the Mets.

With the Nationals up 5-1, Hanrahan gave up successive singles to lead off the sixth inning, and after 93 pitches and running the bases on a hot, humid evening, he was finished. Rivera came in and got Scott Spiezio to foul out but walked Juan Encarnacion to load the bases. Typical of the way the Nationals‘ bullpen has been coming through lately, Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina grounded into a double play to end the threat and the inning.

The Nationals piled on five more runs in the sixth as Zimmerman hit his 17th homer, a two-run shot. It was his first career multi-home run game and just the second for the Nationals this season. After Schneider hit a two-run homer in the seventh, infielder Aaron Miles came in to pitch the eighth for St. Louis, indicating just how bad things have gotten for the Cardinals — and how good things are going for the Nationals.

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