- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 24, 2007

CINCINNATI — There are few stadiums in the majors that cause hitters to drool as much as Great American Ball Park. Coors Field in Denver and Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia get all the attention as home run havens, but the Cincinnati Reds’ cozy confines are just as friendly to sluggers.

So friendly, in fact, they can turn the worst-hitting club in the big leagues into a bunch of sluggers.

How else to explain the Washington Nationals’ dramatic resurgence at the plate since arriving in town this week? Last night’s 12-7 win over the Reds was only the latest (and most dynamic) offensive outburst in a series filled with them.

“We needed to do it sometime, and this is a great ballpark to try to take advantage of,” catcher Brian Schneider said. “We need to start getting something going because the pitching staff has been carrying us for so long now.”

Thanks to Ryan Church (3-for-5, two homers, six RBI), Schneider (2-for-4, homer, double) and a host of others, the Nationals hit like never before this season. Their 12 runs matched their high since relocating from Montreal (they also scored 12 at Houston on April 8, 2006). Their four home runs matched their total from May 28, 2006, against the Dodgers.

And all this came after seven-run and eight-run showings the previous two nights, giving the Nationals 27 runs, 35 hits and seven homers in three games at this bandbox of a ballpark — with one more game still to go tonight.

“They need to move this ballpark to St. Louis,” said Church, referring to the Nationals’ next stop.

Of all the members of the Nationals lineup, perhaps none was as eager to take his hacks in Cincinnati as Church. The left fielder, who hadn’t homered since April 14, couldn’t believe his bad luck when a bruised left forearm kept him out of the lineup the first two nights here.

Finally cleared to start last night, Church wasted no time taking advantage of the surroundings. With two out and one on in the first, he lofted a two-run homer to right, ending his power drought and giving the Nationals a 2-0 lead against Kyle Lohse.

“I didn’t think about that at all,” he said. “I know I’m going to hit them. Keep hitting my doubles, and eventually those will turn into homers.”

By the time Church came up to bat in the seventh, Schneider and Ryan Zimmerman also had gone deep, staking Washington to an 8-1 lead. With another mighty blow, Church added to the onslaught, belting his second homer of the night into the right-field bleachers to make it 9-1.

Most in the crowd of 31,971 had expressed their displeasure by this point and headed for the exits. Jason Simontacchi (2-2) had given the Nationals 51/3 innings of one-run ball, leaving the bullpen in good shape to finish things off without incident. But the one drawback to hitting in Cincinnati is having to pitch in Cincinnati, which can be a harrowing experience.

“You can think it’s over all you want,” Schneider said. “But if you think it’s over, you’re kidding yourself.”

And so things got interesting in the seventh when Washington reliever Saul Rivera allowed two singles and issued two walks with two outs to bring slugger Adam Dunn to the plate with the bases loaded.

Nationals manager Manny Acta signaled for Ray King to make a one-batter appearance, but the lefty specialist walked Dunn on a borderline 3-2 pitch and then got tossed by plate umpire Lance Barksdale for arguing the call.

“I didn’t swear or anything,” the veteran reliever said. “I was just upset at the situation where I thought the 2-1 pitch was just as good as the 3-2 pitch.”

Rookie Winston Abreu entered and immediately allowed a two-run single to Edwin Encarnacion, and suddenly a 9-1 laugher had morphed into a 9-5 affair.

“In this park, you’ve just got to keep going until the last out is made,” Church said.

And he did. Washington’s resurgent cleanup hitter saved his biggest hit for last. With the bases loaded and two outs in the eighth, he laced a three-run double to left-center, capping a career-high six-RBI night.

Was it a coincidence that it happened to come in the most hitter-friendly ballpark this side of the Mississippi?

“Some of those balls were hit pretty hard, regardless of where we’re at,” Acta said. “I’m glad our offense came around here because you really need offense to win in this park unless you have a big-time guy on the mound who is overpowering.”

Want more Nats? Check out Nats Home Plate.

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