- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 30, 2008

The formula for a contending baseball team to win is fairly universal: Take an early lead, get good enough starting pitching to preserve that lead until the late innings and let the bullpen take over from there.

A byproduct of that formula — wins for starting pitchers — hadn’t happened four consecutive times for the Washington Nationals in more than three years.

For whatever reason, something always got in the way of putting together the kind of building blocks of consistent baseball.

Until Friday night, when the Nationals closed out a 7-3 win over the Atlanta Braves and delivered starter Odalis Perez the team’s fourth win in a row. It was a simple act, but it’s also a sign Washington is learning to put together good stretches of baseball a few days at a time.

“We’re starting to do the little things right that it takes to win,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “It doesn’t matter how young you are, how old you are, if you do those things right, you’re going to do well in baseball.”

It marked the first time since Aug. 12-15, 2005 the Nationals had four straight wins from their starting pitchers, when Esteban Loaiza, Tony Armas, John Patterson and Livan Hernandez did it. Considering that team, which finished 81-81, is the closest Washington has come to respectability in four years, even a fragment of commonality has to encourage this year’s club.

The victory stretched the Nationals’ winning streak to four, tying a season high, and gave them their sixth win in eight games.

Washington has hit consistently during the tear for one of the few times this season. The Nationals had four extra base hits Friday, which increased their total to 23 in their last eight games.

“I don’t think I see anything that’s changed. Everybody’s still trying, still working hard,” left fielder Willie Harris said. “You can get all the timely hits you want. If we don’t win, those timely hits don’t mean anything. Everybody’s playing well, everybody’s having fun. We’re just going to try to finish up strong and leave a mark going into next year.”

Braves starter Jorge Campillo was gone after giving up five runs on eight hits and three walks in 3 2/3 innings. The scoring started in the first inning. Cristian Guzman doubled with one out and scored on a Ryan Zimmerman single. Then the second inning brought an Elijah Dukes double and Emilio Bonifacio triple — along with another two runs.

Washington tacked on two more runs in the fourth, and got two in the sixth off Braves reliever Elmer Dessens.

Perez gave up a two-run pinch hit homer to Greg Norton in the fifth inning, but his efficient pitching while the Nationals climbed to their 5-0 lead made his middle-inning mistakes irrelevant.

After loading the bases in the first inning — with one of the runners reaching on an error— Perez got Yunel Escobar to ground into a double play, and then retired nine of the next 10 batters he faced.

Perez, who allowed two earned runs on seven hits in 6 1/31/3 innings earned his fourth quality start in five outings, and his 12th of the season. When his off-speed pitches slipped in and out of his grasp, he induced groundouts with a solid fastball.

“[Earlier this year], when I was ahead in the count, I was throwing my off-speed,” Perez said. “Now, it’s totally different. I’m able to throw my fastball, my sinker, in situations like that. It might be a reason why, in the last five starts, I’ve been pitching well.”

The most reserved reaction to the win belonged to manager Manny Acta, whose muted response dripped with the perspective of a man who’s trying to help a young team put a strong finish on a miserable year.

If there’s any sign of that coming through the last eight games, which followed a 12-game losing streak, that’s all Acta is concerned with.

“I don’t remember [the losing streak],” Acta said. “I just remember that we have played good the last four games. I’m happy to see the guys doing the things we weren’t doing earlier. We’re enjoying it right now. We just want to win as many games as we can and continue to make progress.”

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