- The Washington Times - Friday, May 18, 2007

There were times during the season’s first six weeks when the Washington Nationals couldn’t find a much-needed string of good luck and snap out of their frustrating early foibles.

Yesterday’s 4-3 victory at RFK Stadium was just the latest sign things will at times go the Nationals’ way.

Washington cobbled together three rallies featuring fortuitously placed hits, then held on to improve to 6-1 on its 10-game homestand and win its second consecutive series against a National League East foe. Matt Chico (3-4) gave up three runs in six innings for Washington before the bullpen set down the final nine hitters and interim closer Jon Rauch earned his third save.

“We’ve made a lot of progress,” manager Manny Acta said. “There’s a lot of games left, and we keep preaching and teaching. Things are starting to change, and guys are starting to play the way we want them to play.”

The Nationals (15-26) returned home a week ago with an eight-game losing streak that hinted maybe the dire spring training predictions of historical ineptitude could come true. Depending on the viewpoint, the road trip was either aggravating or encouraging (or both) because Washington had chances to win nearly every night.

Yesterday brought another tight game, one where a few inches and some seemingly innocuous decisions made a difference. First baseman Tony Batista, making his first start with Washington, laced a single through the hole in the left side of the infield in the fourth to knock in the Nationals’ first run.

One inning later, right fielder Austin Kearns poked a bases-loaded dribbler back to pitcher Chuck James, who tried in one motion to grab the ball and tag the oncoming Felipe Lopez. He managed only half of the required action, and Lopez crossed home plate after a harmless tag from the Braves’ starter.

“If you ask any hitter, they say [the breaks] never even out,” Kearns said. “You take what you can get.”

There was similar good fortune in the sixth. With the Braves leading 3-2, catcher Jesus Flores doubled and moved to third on Nook Logan’s sacrifice. Atlanta manager Bobby Cox opted to move the infield in, and pinch-hitter Dmitri Young poked a single to left that probably would have been merely a run-scoring groundout with everyone at normal depth.

Lopez, who earlier snapped an 0-for-13 skid after taking only his second day of the season off Wednesday, then belted a triple to left-center off reliever Chad Paronto (2-2) giving Washington a 4-3 lead as pinch runner Cristian Guzman scored.

“We just haven’t been able to get the big hit or put together an inning where we score more than one or two more runs,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “Lately we’ve been doing it, and the pitchers have been doing what they’ve been doing all year.”

Chico produced a solid outing, getting ahead of most hitters while preventing extended rallies as he earned his first victory since April 27. His biggest mistake was a pitch Chipper Jones hammered for a two-run homer to center. But even then, Chico responded with three quick outs to end the fourth.

“The whole game isn’t one of the games I felt great,” Chico said. “I really had to focus on all my pitches, and after the first inning I really settled down.”

The increasingly reliable bullpen then took over with Billy Traber, Jesus Colome and Rauch each tossing a scoreless inning. Rauch’s ease in the ninth in the last week as closer Chad Cordero spent time on the bereavement list and then re-acclimated himself to the club was a welcome though unsurprising development for the 6-foot-11 right-hander.

Rauch has pitched nine straight scoreless outings, including three saves in five days, while surrendering only one hit since April 28. Though he will return to his usual set-up role tonight, Rauch provides an alternative when Cordero is unavailable.

“It gives us that flexibility,” Acta said. “Sometimes Chad won’t have to go out there and have to try to save three or four games in a row.”

The Nationals were simply looking for one win in a row just a week ago, let alone any kind of streak. But after another tight victory yesterday, Acta’s perpetually optimistic approach looks more and more justified.

“Things are just evening out for us, and that happens in baseball,” Acta said. “I’m very proud of these guys.”

Want more Nats? Check out Nats Home Plate.

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