- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 25, 2007

NEW YORK — From an emotional perspective, the Washington Nationals‘ season might have ended Sunday when RFK Stadium closed its doors to baseball forever.

The Nationals, though, have known all along they can’t let up mentally until they have completed the final and perhaps most important week on their 2007 schedule. With six straight games on the road against the pennant-contending New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies, Washington understands its role the rest of the way.

And if the Nationals’ performance last night during a 13-4 thumping of the Mets is an indication of things to come, the National League East leaders had better watch out.

“We know what’s on the line, what’s at stake,” outfielder Ryan Church said following Washington’s third win in four games against New York in a week. “We’re hungry to knock people off. … It’s satisfying to know we can go out there, beat this quality team and have an impact on the whole race.”

Washington (70-87) came to Shea Stadium ready to play. New York? Well, many in the crowd of 49,164 apparently didn’t think so, based on all the boos that rained down on Willie Randolph’s club, which now leads the Phillies by two games with six to play.

The Mets (87-69) have lost seven of their last 11, leaving the baseball-mad media in this town to start questioning whether Randolph should be fired (and whether general manager Omar Minaya blew it by not hiring Manny Acta instead).

Acta, of course, was hired by the Nationals last winter, and both sides couldn’t be happier with the results. Washington’s “magic number” to clinch fourth place in the NL East is three, and with two more wins this team will surpass its 2006 total.

“I’m very proud, not only how they’re playing against the Mets but how they’ve played the whole season,” Acta said. “It’s a big accomplishment for those guys.”

If nothing else, the Nationals are learning what it takes to compete in the pressure-filled gauntlet of a pennant race, a lesson that could pay off someday.

“I think they can only gain from this,” Acta said. “Because who knows, we might be in it next year or the year after that. You want to have some type of experience dealing with this type of environment.”

Perhaps no member of the Washington pitching staff will impact the outcome of the NL East race more than Matt Chico, who started last night and is in line to pitch Sunday’s finale at Citizens Bank Park.

Look at how far the 24-year-old has come during his rookie season. Given a chance to develop at the big league level, he more than held his own, keeping his ERA under 5.00 since late June while taking the mound more often than anyone else in the rotation.

Chico’s start last night was his 30th; no one else on the staff has reached 20. His 6-9 record may not be flashy, but certainly he has shown the talent, durability and guts to suggest he can survive in the majors. This time he worked 51/3 innings, allowing nine hits and three runs.

“He was a question mark going into spring,” catcher Brian Schneider said. “You don’t expect him to be the one that [gets to 30 starts]. But he’s done a good job this year. He’s been knocked for a little bit of this. But you know what? The kid, anytime you ask him to take the ball, he’s taken the ball.”

Last night Chico outperformed a fellow rookie who has drawn far more hype, Mike Pelfrey. The 23-year-old right-hander was sought by numerous clubs (including the Nationals) at the July 31 trade deadline, but the Mets would not let him go, believing he can lead their staff one day.

It hasn’t happened yet. After another shaky outing last night, Pelfrey fell to 3-8 with a 5.57 ERA. He particularly fell into trouble when he couldn’t find the strike zone. All four men he walked unintentionally wound up scoring.

Those runners came around thanks to two big hits in clutch situations, the first by Austin Kearns, the second by Ronnie Belliard. Kearns’ three-run homer to left in the fifth put the Nationals on top 5-1. Belliard’s two-run double off reliever Joe Smith an inning later gave them some extra cushion, extending the lead to 7-1.

Church’s two-run double in the eighth added to the lead, and Ryan Langerhans’ three-run homer in the ninth put a final stamp on another impressive Washington win.

“We’re not folding here,” Schneider said. “We’re playing hard. We’re not trying to be spoilers. We’re trying to win every game we can.”

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