- The Washington Times - Friday, August 8, 2008

DENVER | There are better places than Coors Field for the Washington Nationals to make a credible pronouncement about their offense being in improved shape. Those assertions have a way of dissolving in Denver’s thin air, especially for a team that has endured long slumps after a brief offensive outburst this season.

That qualifier aside, there has to be some catharsis in the fact that Washington came into a ballpark where it hadn’t won since Aug. 14, 2005 before this week, faced the defending National League champions and won three games in four days, all of them fueled by a lineup that’s clicking.

The Nationals finished off a series win over the Colorado Rockies with a sweep of Thursday’s doubleheader. The twin victories resembled a straight-sets tennis win - 6-3, 6-3 - and sent the team to Milwaukee having won six of its last seven. In that span, the Nationals scored five or more runs four times.

It was just the fifth series Washington has won on the road this season, and only the second time it has taken three out of four games away from Nationals Park.

“A lot of these guys are not as bad as we were swinging the bat earlier,” manager Manny Acta said. “I’m not saying from now on they’re going to be banging the ball every single day, but they’re certainly not as bad as they were.”

Jason Bergmann pitched seven innings and Lastings Milledge hit two home runs in the first-game victory. It was Milledge’s first two-homer game since September, and his four RBI tied a career high.

Milledge’s first homer sailed 445 feet, cleared the left-field bleachers and landed on the walkway behind the seats. After working Jeff Francis to a 3-0 count, he took a called strike on a fastball, fouled one off and turned on the third straight fastball Francis threw him.

The 23-year-old has homered four times in the last six games. All four of them came with Milledge ahead in the count.

“That’s how the power comes,” Acta said. “It’s a matter of working the count, getting yourself in a hitter’s count and being able to zero in on the pitch you want. They’re young, so sometimes they’re going to chase pitches out of the zone, and we’ve got to keep preaching that.”

The Nationals ended the inning with four runs and got two more in the sixth on Milledge’s next homer.

Washington’s runs were of a scrappier variety in the second game, four of them coming in the second inning after Odalis Perez gave up a two-run homer to Colorado’s Garrett Atkins. The Nationals turned over their lineup with two outs in the second and got three hits and a walk from their top four hitters.

The bottom of the lineup also accounted for their two runs in the fifth, with Kory Casto and Ryan Langerhans drawing walks from an erratic Ubaldo Jimenez and Wil Nieves driving them in with a one-out double.

“Everybody’s going up there with a pretty good game plan,” Langerhans said. “We don’t seem to be making a lot of first-pitch outs or outs where we’re ahead in the count, taking bad swings.”

As a result, both of the Nationals’ starters - Bergmann and Perez - earned victories.

Bergmann won for the first time since May 15. He reached the seventh inning just once since July 1, going 0-3 with a 4.50 ERA in that span. The problem is a familiar one for him; his front side had flied open when he delivered, instead of his lead shoulder staying square to the plate.

That has caused his fastball to tail off, and it robbed his breaking pitches of movement.

On Thursday, he harped on the mechanics and produced a smooth victory.

“That’s been my biggest problem my whole career, back to high school,” Bergmann said. “Pitching is so fast when you’re out there. You can’t just break it down piece by piece. There’s really no formula for doing it. You just have to do it.”

Perez won for the third time in four starts by eating innings, setting up pitches off his fastball and keeping his walk totals low.

Colorado had a base hit off him in five of his six innings, but managed only two runs off Perez.

Reliever Joel Hanrahan protected a three-run lead in the ninth, becoming the franchise’s first pitcher to save two games in one day since John Wetteland on July 7, 1992.

The Nationals will trade in Colorado’s struggling rotation for the lethal combination of Milwaukee’s CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets in their next series. The lefty-righty tandem has stuff nasty enough to send a lineup into a two-day hibernation.

If that’s what awaits, the Nationals are meeting it with confidence.

“I’ve been preaching that to Milledge a lot: Just try to be consistent,” hitting coach Lenny Harris said. “Some guys just go through the motions sometimes. I get kind of upset when I see it, so I go over and say, ‘Hey, you have to find a better way to win a ballgame. What are you going to do today to win this ballgame for us?’”

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