- The Washington Times - Monday, August 4, 2008

The differences were obvious, and the results confirmed that.

The Washington Nationals squad that swept the Cincinnati Reds over the weekend, capped by Sunday’s 4-2 victory, was not the same team that limped into the series on a nine-game losing streak. Really, this team bore no resemblance to the one that slogged its way through four dismal months of losing.

What happened? Well, starting with the decision to release underperforming veterans Paul Lo Duca, Felipe Lopez and Johnny Estrada on Thursday night, the Nationals began playing like a big league club again.

They produced clutch hits. They hustled. They got good relief pitching. And they played sterling defense, leaving the ballclub in a good mood as it boarded a flight for Denver and the start of an eight-game road trip.

“We’re doing everything right,” said new closer Joel Hanrahan, who earned his first career save. “We’re not giving extra outs out there. We’re getting runners over and getting them in. Starting pitching’s been awesome. Everybody’s doing their job, and we’re having fun playing again.”

The two new middle infielders have played a huge role in making that happen.

Second baseman Emilio Bonifacio and shortstop Alberto Gonzalez, each added to the roster Friday, already have contributed. In his first three games with Washington, Bonifacio has five hits, an RBI, a stolen base and a number of defensive gems. In that same time, Gonzalez has four hits, two walks and a similar number of outstanding plays.

“Any ball up the middle is not just going to go through anymore,” said Collin Balester, Sunday’s starter and winning pitcher. “They’re going to have to earn it.”

Balester and Gonzalez teamed up for one of the afternoon’s biggest plays: a pickoff of Reds cleanup man Brandon Phillips that helped quash a rally.

Balester (2-3) always has owned a quick move to second base - he picked off four baserunners there this season at Class AAA Columbus - so his middle infielders are aware of his penchant to make the throw. On Sunday, with runners on first and second and one out in the second inning, Balester gave a quick nod to Gonzalez to signal his intention before the next pitch.

Gonzalez sprinted behind Phillips, Balester whirled and fired and the Reds runner was nailed to the delight of the crowd of 32,939.

“He was right there with me,” Balester said of Gonzalez. “And we got him out.”

On a day in which he admittedly didn’t have his best stuff, Balester still managed to allow just one run (Joey Votto’s solo homer) over 5 1/3 innings. The organization’s top pitching prospect has given up three runs or fewer in four of his six starts.

“He’s getting confidence up here,” manager Manny Acta said.

Said the rookie pitcher: “It’s not as nerve-racking every time I go out there. I feel more comfortable now. I’m starting to feel like I’m back in Triple-A, just pitching.”

Of course, it helped that Balester took the mound for the second inning with a four-run lead. The Nationals strung together five straight two-out hits off Cincinnati starter Johnny Cueto (7-11).

After Cueto struck out the first two men he faced, Lastings Milledge greeted the 22-year-old right-hander with a solo homer to left. Austin Kearns, Kory Casto and Pete Orr all followed with singles, and when left fielder Adam Dunn committed an error on Orr’s RBI hit, another run came around to score. Wil Nieves’ RBI single capped the big inning.

Though the Nationals didn’t score again, the pitching staff made those four runs hold up. Balester offered up his 5 1/3 innings, and the relief trio of Steven Shell, Charlie Manning and Hanrahan finished off a three-game sweep that showed off a new-look Washington club.

“We played real good baseball this series,” Milledge said. “We scored a lot of runs, but our defense has been superb these last three games. That’s what we need.”

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