- The Washington Times - Monday, July 21, 2008

ATLANTA | It’s not like Washington Nationals manager Manny Acta to single out one contest of a 162-game season as particularly significant, so it probably shouldn’t have been surprising when Acta responded to the most bountiful offensive day of his major league managing career with enthusiasm that barely could be classified as tepid.

“I guess anytime you win a series, it’s good, especially the way we were struggling in the first half,” Acta said. “We did some good things offensively, which is good.”

That’s it? After the Nationals produced a series win over the Atlanta Braves with a 15-6 victory Sunday? Got anything else, Manny?

“They did take advantage of [Braves starter Jo-Jo] Reyes being a little off today,” he said. “They put a lot of good at-bats together, and we were able to do what we weren’t doing in the past, which is driving in big runs.”

For a team that occasionally goes a week without scoring 15 runs, any offensive outburst should be greeted even-handedly. But before they flew to San Francisco on the verge of getting No. 3 hitter Ryan Zimmerman back from the disabled list, the Nationals turned in the kind of thorough offensive performance that led some players to believe a hot streak is looming.

The game’s stars were practically interchangeable. Willie Harris could have received top billing for his two hits (including a two-run homer), five RBI and three walks or Austin Kearns with his franchise record-tying five runs and three-hit performance that came a triple short of the cycle. So could Jesus Flores (5-for-6), Felipe Lopez (3-for-4, a walk, three runs and three RBI) or Ryan Langerhans (who finished the series 6-for-12).

The superlatives were almost as numerous. Washington posted its most runs in a game since moving from Montreal, set a season high for hits in a game and tied a season high with its six-run fourth inning.

The most encouraging one, however, was this: The 29 runs the Nationals scored in the series were their most in a three-game series since Sept. 24-26, 2007, when they scored 32 against the Mets, and it topped their previous best this season by 10 runs.

Maybe baseball’s law of averages finally is bringing Washington’s offense out of its season-long ineptitude, or maybe its struggling hitters are making the necessary adjustments. On Sunday, the Nationals did what they have failed to do much of the season: punish a pitcher who consistently served up mistakes.

Reyes was wild from the five-pitch walk he issued Harris to start the game to the flat, belt-high curveball he threw to Langerhans on his last pitch of the game in the third inning. Langerhans punched it to center, scoring Ronnie Belliard, loading the bases and giving the Nationals a 6-1 lead.

“Playing with Reyes and seeing him pitch, I know sometimes he has a hard time finding the strike zone,” said Harris, whose on-base percentage is .621 since he first started in the leadoff spot six games ago. “We made some adjustments, we were patient at the plate and we were able to hit the strikes that he did throw.”

The Braves’ bullpen wasn’t much better. Buddy Carlyle gave up another six runs on five hits in 1 2/3 innings, hitting Cristian Guzman and walking Harris on an off-the-plate fastball to bring in a run and push Braves manager Bobby Cox to his limit.

Cox stepped out of the Braves’ dugout to yell at home plate umpire Chris Guccione, was immediately ejected and responded by storming out of the dugout for a lengthy nose-to-nose confrontation with Guccione. He fired a few more barbs at the umpire before heading for the Braves’ clubhouse.

The benefactor of it all was left-hander Odalis Perez, who earned the kind of win occasionally afforded to pitchers with run support large enough to overcome a sloppy performance.

His energy sapped from a fourth-inning play in which he hit into a fielder’s choice and went all the way to third on a throwing error, Perez labored through the fourth, allowing three runs in the inning.

Perez went just five innings, and only in the final one did he not allow a baserunner. But by the time he went out for the fifth, Washington already had a seven-run lead, and Acta had the luxury of letting Perez work a little longer and pitch enough innings to get the victory.

“I did not pitch that well, but sometimes you deserve games like that,” Perez said. “Sometimes you go six, seven good innings, and at the end of the day, I lost. But today, it was special.”



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