- The Washington Times - Friday, June 15, 2007

BALTIMORE — The Washington Nationals’ piecemeal starting rotation produced another solid outing last night at Camden Yards. Baltimore squandered yet another quality start from its offseason waiver wire gem.

The result was predictable: A 3-1 Nationals victory on a brisk night before 20,770, completing a three-game sweep of the reeling Orioles behind Jason Simontacchi’s seven-inning performance.

It was enough to clinch a victory in the season’s six-game series between the teams residing at opposite ends of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway (4-2) and assured the Nationals a winning record in their nine-game swing through American League parks before they even made it to Toronto for a weekend series.

“It’s beautiful,” Simontacchi said. “We leave the country, and hopefully momentum will go with us.”

The Nationals (29-37) struggled against Jeremy Guthrie, who has gone from a January waiver claim to a consistent starter. But once he departed in the eighth, Washington turned a few efficient at-bats into the go-ahead run.

Shortstop Cristian Guzman slapped a single to left off reliever Chad Bradford, then moved up on Felipe Lopez’s sacrifice. Ryan Zimmerman then sent Guzman home on a single to center.

That staked Simontacchi (4-4) to a tenuous 2-1 lead, but his seven-inning outing ultimately held up despite putting 13 runners on base throughout the night.

“We needed somebody to keep us in the game today like Simontacchi did,” Acta said. “We knew we weren’t going to get much against [Guthrie].”

The frustration of the latest skid for the Orioles (29-37) — who have dropped five straight and 10 of 12 to sink into last place in the AL East — bubbled over in the eighth. Jay Payton, tasked with laying down a bunt to move over two runners with none out, failed to do so in three tries and didn’t even make contact on the third pitch.

First-base umpire Ed Montague ruled Payton swung. Payton jawed with Montague from the dugout and was ejected, prompting manager Sam Perlozzo to pop onto the field and bicker before his night, too, was ended prematurely with a Montague dismissal.

He didn’t miss anything remotely welcome. Washington reliever Jon Rauch pumped his hand into his glove after striking out Paul Bako to leave the bases loaded in the eighth, and Ryan Langerhans knocked in an insurance run with a ninth-inning double to send hundreds of disgruntled fans scurrying to the parking lot.

Chad Cordero pitched a perfect ninth to earn his 10th save as Washington completed its first road sweep since June 2-4, 2006, at Milwaukee.

In the first four innings, Simontacchi put the leadoff man on three times and faced situations with two men on base in each inning. Nevertheless, he wriggled out of jams, sometimes with the Orioles’ assistance. After loading the bases in the second, Simontacchi got Brian Roberts to bounce into a double play to end the inning.

Baltimore also put its first two men on in the third to set up shortstop Miguel Tejada, but Simontacchi picked Melvin Mora off second and induced a double-play grounder on the next pitch to eradicate the danger.

Simontacchi produced his second straight outing of at least seven innings and adding another quality performance to the anonymous brigade now constituting the Nationals’ rotation. But the Orioles stubbornly hacked away and didn’t force Simontacchi to work deep counts with runners on.

“I was just trying to stay calm and stay with the game plan, don’t try to reinvent something or pitch out of it,” Simontacchi said. “Our defense came through.”

With Simontacchi constantly staving off rallies, Washington took a 1-0 lead in the fifth when Guthrie walked both Langerhans and Guzman before surrendering a ground-rule double to Lopez, who has knocked in six runs in three games since dropping to the No. 2 spot in the order.

Plenty has gone right for the Nationals, who are 20-12 since a 9-25 start. Washington is within eight games of .500 for the first time since April 30 but seems unwilling to get too excited about five strong weeks.

“We’re not playing that much better,” Zimmerman said. “We’re just getting some breaks and capitalizing when we get breaks.”

Added Acta: “Those guys have been pretty steady in terms of emotions in that clubhouse. I don’t know how high you want to feel. We’re still not even .500 yet. … We have 100 games left.”

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