- The Washington Times - Monday, May 5, 2008

The metamorphosis of the Washington Nationals over a 12-day, 11-game homestand ended mundanely enough yesterday, but the way it concluded said plenty.

A team that came to Nationals Park grasping for offense got a hit from every player who came to the plate but its starting pitcher. Instead of an overworked bullpen trying to bail out a starter who left too early, its relievers moved efficiently through the final innings on the heels of a clean outing from Tim Redding.

The end result is this: After coming home on a 2-15 slide, the Nationals leave it having won eight of 11.

And despite fielding a makeshift lineup for the capper — which was missing Ryan Zimmerman’s name for the first time in 206 games and had Lastings Milledge in his third different spot in three days — Washington’s 5-2 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates was some of the most seamless baseball the team has played all season.

It sends the Nationals into a three-game series at Houston with a 14-18 record, still in last place but only four games out of first in the NL East.



“We want to be there in September with a chance,” catcher Paul Lo Duca said. “Guys are starting to believe we can win.”

At the center of it all again was Redding, who ran his record to 4-2 and continued to prove he is recovered from the shoulder surgery he had in 2005 that sent him to the minors for all of 2006. He threw 61/3 innings, reaching 93 mph with his fastball and playing a nasty slider off the pitch to strike out five while allowing just one run on six hits.

It didn’t hurt that Redding, who is at his best when he can attack hitters with his fastball, had a lead by the time he took the mound in the second inning.

Cristian Guzman singled to short, and Milledge — batting third after hitting fifth on Friday and fourth yesterday — was hit by a pitch. Nick Johnson and Austin Kearns brought them both in with back-to-back singles, giving Redding a 2-0 cushion.

“He pounded the strike zone with his fastball, and he was aggressive, especially with the first pitch,” manager Manny Acta said. “He kept his pitch count low, which is why he was able to go all the way to the seventh.”

At that point, the Nationals had a 3-1 lead after Aaron Boone and Adam LaRoche traded homers. Redding gave up one-out hits to Xavier Nady and LaRoche, leaving the game with runners on second and third.

Saul Rivera came in, and Acta, Lo Duca and Redding hoped he could get out giving up only one run. He didn’t give up any.

“If this was football, he’d get the game ball,” Redding said. “He’s a ground ball pitcher. It was a great move by Manny to bring him in that situation, try and minimize the damage, and fortunately we got out of there unscathed.”

Rivera got a pair of comebackers to the mound, preserving the lead and further distancing himself from a wretched four-day stretch in which he gave up six runs in three innings as the Nationals lost all three games in which he appeared.

Since then, the right-hander has kept the ball down, gotten ground-ball outs and allowed three runs in 62/3 innings. That simple formula has earned him two wins, and every time he has pitched, Washington has won.

“I just want to do my job,” Rivera said. “Any situation, if I toss up a zero, I help my team to win.”

Sounds simple, but it has helped build the kind of efficient victories the Nationals weren’t getting before — and they think will keep coming.

“We’ve got to keep winning series,” Lo Duca said. “We want to get to .500 by the end of May. That was our goal, and hopefully we’ll get there before that.”

SEEN AND HEARD AT NATIONALS PARK

 Having correctly picked Big Brown to win the Kentucky Derby, Paul Lo Duca still hasn’t decided whether he will try to beat him at the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore in two weeks. Lo Duca’s horse, Golden Spikes, either will run this weekend at the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park in New York or the Preakness. The Nationals catcher’s 3-year-old finished second in the Illinois Derby on April 5.

— Ben Goessling

BY THE NUMBERS

205

Consecutive games third baseman Ryan Zimmerman had played before taking a day off yesterday. The last time Zimmerman didn’t start a game was Sept. 18, 2006.

TOMORROW’S GAME

Nationals RHP Shawn Hill Record, ERA: 0-0, 3.50

Astros RHP Shawn Chacon Record, ERA: 0-0, 3.32

Time: 8:05 p.m. TV: MASN

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