- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 17, 2007

For more than two years, the Washington Nationals have waited patiently for Ryan Church to develop into the kind of major league hitter who could be counted upon to come through in the clutch.

For all his natural ability and solid numbers, the young outfielder had only sparingly delivered in high-pressure situations, prompting some to question whether the 28-year-old would ever truly blossom into a key piece of this team’s future.

Church, though, is beginning to shed that reputation and not long ago was bumped up to the cleanup spot in Manny Acta’s lineup. And if his bases-clearing double in the fifth inning of last night’s 6-4 win over the Atlanta Braves was an indication of his maturation at the plate, the Nationals might be closer to giving him a permanent place in the lineup.

“We’ve just got to keep him level-headed,” Acta said. “He knows that he’s a big part of our offense. It’s good. He can gain more confidence.”

Church’s three-run double off right-hander Kyle Davies highlighted a four-run rally for Washington, which overcame some shaky moments early on to win for the fifth time in six games. The rally also ensured at least a four-game series split with the National League East co-leading Braves heading into this afternoon’s finale at RFK Stadium.

Last night’s win before a crowd of 20,329 wouldn’t have been possible without five stellar innings of work from six relief pitchers: Billy Traber (who was credited with the win after arriving from Class AAA Columbus during the national anthem), Ray King, Winston Abreu, Saul Rivera, Chad Cordero and Jon Rauch.

Still easing his way back from a week on bereavement leave, Cordero made a rare eighth-inning appearance and mowed down three straight Atlanta hitters. That set the stage for Rauch to enter in the ninth and earn his second save.

The relief corps has been so good in the current arrangement, allowing one run over the last 162/3 innings, Acta couldn’t avoid being asked whether he might keep things as they are for now. The rookie manager, though, was prepared with his answer.

“It’s nice to see that I can go to [Rauch],” Acta said. “That being said, what you do in four years, I don’t forget in four outings. So after a day off tomorrow, if we can, Cordero’s our closer again.”

The Washington bullpen never would have been in position to finish this one off if not for the fifth-inning rally, one that was capped by Church but featured several other key developments.

Trailing 4-2 at the time, the Nationals loaded the bases with one out thanks to a pinch-hit walk by rookie Jesus Flores and Kelly Johnson’s fielding error on Cristian Guzman’s routine grounder to second. With the bases loaded, Ronnie Belliard hit into a force out, narrowly beating the potential double-play throw to first to score a run and keep the inning alive.

Ryan Zimmerman (who drove in Washington’s first two runs on a double and a homer) drew a walk, bringing Church to the plate with the bases loaded and a chance to give Washington the lead. That is the kind of situation Church must produce in if he’s going to remain a middle-of-the-order slugger, and he didn’t disappoint.

Despite falling behind 1-2 to Davies, he waited on a curveball and drilled a line drive over the second baseman’s head. The ball nearly rolled to the wall, and by the time the play was dead, all three runners had scored and Church was standing on second clapping his hands in excitement.

“I’ve come through in situations like that, but it’s never been in the four-hole like that,” said Church, who leads the club with 14 doubles and 18 RBI. “If you’re 3, 4, 5 in the big leagues, people start paying attention to you. For me, it’s not getting caught up in that whole thing. It’s having a game plan, knowing the situation.”

The fifth-inning rally erased another shaky performance from the Nationals’ starting rotation, which has become decimated by injuries. With three of his Opening Day five (John Patterson, Shawn Hill, Jerome Williams) now on the disabled list, Acta was forced to turn to rookie reliever Levale Speigner for a spot start last night.

The 26-year-old right-hander, who grew up in Thomasville, Ga., rooting for the Braves, was hoping to make enough of an impression to earn another start in five days, but Acta will have to decide whether he merited another look after allowing four runs and eight hits in four labored innings.

Speigner didn’t struggle with his control the way he has on occasion out of the bullpen this season. If anything, he got too much of the plate, throwing 45 of his 58 pitches for strikes. The Braves made him pay, with three straight hits in the first to take a 2-0 lead, then stringing together three more in the fourth to add to their lead and end the rookie hurler’s evening.

“The middle of their lineup was tough today,” Speigner said. “That’s pretty much who did all their damage.”

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