Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Washington Nationals’ 7-6 victory over the Houston Astros yesterday was decided by any number of crucial developments, from a series of clutch hits by Ryan Church, Austin Kearns, Ronnie Belliard and Ryan Langerhans to an effective start by Jason Bergmann to a nice escape act by Chad Cordero.

The biggest play, though, might well have been made in the field by the guy who has carried the Nationals all season with his bat.

Dmitri Young’s heads-up throw to nab Lance Berkman at the plate and prevent the tying run from scoring in a harrowing seventh inning helped ensure Washington’s slim victory before a matinee crowd of 27,119 at RFK Stadium.

“You’ve always got to be aware of plays like that,” the National League’s leading hitter said. “That would have made the difference between the game being tied and us having the lead.”

Young’s play came at the end of a wild seventh inning that saw the Nationals turn what looked like a comfortable 7-2 lead into near disaster. The Astros scored four runs off three pitchers (Bergmann and relievers Ray King and Saul Rivera) and were on the verge of wiping out the deficit altogether when Carlos Lee roped a ball down the third-base line.

Ryan Zimmerman made a backhanded stab and tried to gun Lee down at first, but his throw pulled Young off the base. Berkman, who was on second when the play began, tried to come all the way around to score, hoping the defensively challenged Young wasn’t paying attention.

What Young lacks in physical ability, though, he makes up for in baseball acumen. The veteran first baseman saw the play developing all the way and wasted no time firing a strike to the plate to nab Berkman, end the rally and preserve the Nationals’ one-run lead.

“When I turned around and [saw] him coming, Dmitri was ready to make the throw,” said catcher Jesus Flores, filling in for starter Brian Schneider, who has a bruised right arm. “It was a big play in the game.”

It was far from the only big play by Washington, which earned a series victory over the Astros. With a flurry of early clutch hits, manager Manny Acta’s squad defied conventional logic that says this team can”t score runs.

The Nationals (39-55) put three runs on the board in the first inning alone thanks to two-out doubles by Church and Kearns. Those kind of hits have been few and far between for two of Washington’s struggling regulars. Kearns had doubled only once in his previous 21 games and had only 12 RBI over his last 39 games.

“He’s getting his share in RBI now,” Acta said. “And it’s going to get better. He’s making some adjustments with his hands at the plate. Once he gets that timing down, it’s going to pay off.”

The biggest blow of the afternoon came in the fifth, when Langerhans crushed a first-pitch curveball from Jason Jennings (1-6) over the right-field fence for a three-run homer.

Like many of his teammates, Langerhans has struggled at the plate this season. His season average (including time spent with both the Atlanta Braves and Oakland Athletics) remains a piddling .168. But in 61 games with the Nationals, the outfielder has hit five home runs, most of them meaningful.

As Washington prepares to activate Alex Escobar off the disabled list and insert him into the daily lineup, Langerhans continues to make a case for himself to remain on the roster as a valuable fourth outfielder.

“It feels good, getting that hit in a close game and giving us a big lift,” he said. “I’ve got to be more consistent with it, not just do stuff like that every now and then.”

The Nationals’ victory was not assured until the final out was recorded in the ninth inning. For that, Acta can thank Cordero, who got a double-play grounder out of Orlando Palmeiro and then stranded the tying runner, Chris Burke, on third with two outs.

Burke got there by beating out a hard smash that ate up Zimmerman and knicked up the third baseman’s right hand. Zimmerman still tried to make a spectacular throw to first but wound up heaving the ball toward the dugout, a potentially costly error that allowed Burke to advance to second.

“If I make a perfect throw, I might get him,” said Zimmerman, who made several impressive plays in the field. “But probably better I hold on to it right there.”

The situation got even worse when Cordero uncorked a wild pitch that moved Burke up to third. But the closer calmly made his pitch to Hunter Pence and got the star rookie to ground out to end the game and give Washington a much-needed series victory.

“We’ve gone through our spells when it’s been tough, but you grind through it,” Zimmerman said. “We’re doing a little bit better now. Especially the second half, trying to show everyone we’re better than what we did in the first half.”

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