- The Washington Times - Friday, May 9, 2008

HOUSTON On a day in which they learned both of their veteran catchers are headed for the disabled list for an indeterminate amount of time, the Washington Nationals knew they had to find some way, any way to win a ballgame.

Having dropped a pair of gut-wrenching, one-run games to the Houston Astros the previous two nights, the Nationals were in a bit of desperation mode at Minute Maid Park.

Another loss, and this club would head home on an all-night flight to the District on a three-game slide and rightfully feeling glum. Instead, manager Manny Acta got another gutsy performance from left-hander John Lannan and a surprisingly productive hitting display from a makeshift lineup, all of which resulted in a satisfying 8-3 victory before 33,433 at Minute Maid Park.

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It was very important to win, Acta said. They made two comebacks on us the last two nights. It was important for us to go back home, and go with a good feeling.

Playing with only 23 healthy bodies catchers Paul Lo Duca (right hand) and Johnny Estrada (right elbow) were not available but won’t be placed on the DL until today the Nationals still managed to leave town with a convincing win.

For that, Acta could thank Lannan (who churned out six innings of one-run ball despite not having his best stuff) and some unheralded bench players who made the most of their rare opportunity to start last night.

Whether he was trying to shake some things up in search of a win or simply just wanted to give a couple regulars the night off, Acta drew up a new-look lineup for the series finale.

Benched were Lastings Milledge, Wily Mo Pena and Felipe Lopez, replaced respectively by Willie Harris, Rob Mackowiak and Ronnie Belliard (who made his first start since April 20 after battling a fingernail infection and a bad back, injuries that hadn’t previously been made public).

We had those big guys [starting] the first two games, and we couldn’t win, the manager said. Why not give those guys a chance, too?

The newcomers took advantage of the opportunity.

Harris, given a chance to lead off for the first time this season, opened the game by drawing a four-pitch walk. Though he was retired moments later on Cristian Guzman’s fielder’s choice, he set the stage and allowed Guzman to score on Nick Johnson’s subsequent double to deep right-center.

Harris didn’t need any help getting the Nationals’ second run of the night across the plate. The diminutive utilityman belted Brandon Backe’s 1-1 pitch in the third into the right-field bleachers for a solo homer, only his eighth in a 516-game big-league career.

I hate that I hit that home run tonight, Harris joked. Now I’m going to think I’m Manny [Ramirez] or somebody.

Austin Kearns delivered a two-run single in the sixth to give the Nationals a 4-1 lead, and then Mackowiak put the game out of reach with a two-run homer in the eighth.

Those were Mackowiak’s first two RBI in 22 games this season, and they certainly were a welcome relief for the veteran outfielder, who had to date been a $1.5 million bust but has begun to show signs of breaking out.

When you do get in there, you feel like you are ready, he said. When you do get in there like today, you feel a little better about yourself, and you feel like you’re not going to miss the balls you should hit.

Mackowiak contributed to last night’s win in multiple ways. In addition to his homer, he also made a dazzling, diving catch of Darin Erstad’s line drive in the left-field corner.

All of that support, both offensively and defensively, were appreciated by Lannan because the young lefty wasn’t as sharp as he had been during his remarkable string of starts last month. He allowed seven hits in six innings and allowed a man to reach scoring position in all but the third.

But as he has done on several occasions since debuting in the majors last summer, Lannan (3-3) gutted his way through those jams and emerged on top. The only run the Astros scored off him came in the fourth and required two infield singles (one on a routine grounder to short that Guzman was slow to get rid of).

That’s part of the learning process, the pitcher said. Learning how to battle.

Sitting on 93 pitches, Lannan might have been able to retake the mound for the seventh inning. But Acta, always one to let a starter on a high note, turned to his bullpen and asked the triumvirate of Saul Rivera, Luis Ayala and Jon Rauch to close out this game and salvage one much-needed victory out of this series before hitting the skies for a flight that wasn’t due to land in the District until 4 a.m.

Said Lannan: My goal today was to get a win for us and get on the plane a long, long plane back home and have it be a little more enjoyable.

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