- The Washington Times - Monday, September 1, 2008

The sign went from Manny Acta in the Washington Nationals‘ dugout to Tim Tolman in the third base coaching box and was relayed to Aaron Boone at the plate. There were two men on in the eighth, the Nationals trailed the Atlanta Braves by a run and the situation demanded a sacrifice bunt.

Unfortunately, the best Boone could do was foul the attempt off to his right.

“Good job of not executing,” Boone said later with a smirk.

The veteran infielder could afford to smile by afternoon’s end because, as it turned out, that botched bunt proved to be a blessing in disguise. Not wanting to take another chance playing small ball, Acta took off the sacrifice sign, let his batter swing away and then watched as Boone crushed the next pitch he saw from Elmer Dessens into the left-field bullpen.

From goat to hero in a span of perhaps 30 seconds, Boone completed yet another late, impressive rally from the Nationals, who rode that three-run homer to an 8-4 victory and the club’s sixth straight win.

“In a weird way, I think [the fouled-off bunt] kind of turned it in my favor,” said Boone, who hadn’t homered since May 27 at San Diego. “I think they still thought I was bunting, so he really wanted to stay aggressive with me, and I got a good pitch to hit.”

That’s the kind of break the Nationals rarely got during the first 4 1/2 months of the season but suddenly find themselves willingly accepting during a perfect homestand that has now featured three-game sweeps of both the Dodgers and Braves with three more games to go against the Phillies.

One successful week won’t completely erase the memories of an otherwise downtrodden season, but it has made Washington’s players happier despite the losing record.

“This is great,” catcher Wil Nieves said. “It’s always nice to come in here and listen to that loud music that we play after the games. … It’s been a tough year. Right now it just feels good that the season’s coming to an end and we’re playing good baseball.”

Sunday’s victory boasted any number of positive developments for a club that is measuring progress in baby steps.

Rookie right-hander Collin Balester got off to a shaky start and didn’t earn the win, but he did show some grit in turning his outing around and making something positive out of it. After allowing four runs and five hits through the first 14 batters he faced, Balester proceeded to shut Atlanta out the rest of the way, retiring 12 of the last 14 batters he faced.

In doing so, the 22-year-old completed seven innings for the first time this year at either the major league or minor league level.

“That was huge,” he said. “I needed to get that under my belt.”

Balester’s biggest hang-up since debuting two months ago has been a propensity to fade as his starts drag on, so his strong finish Sunday was an encouraging sign.

“It was very important that he was able to make the adjustment after the first part of the game and that way allowed himself to go deeper in the game,” Acta said. “He just made the adjustment and was able to give us a real good seven innings.”

By that time, the Nationals had drawn within a run but hadn’t been able to get over the hump against Atlanta starter Jair Jurrjens. But if nothing else, Washington’s hitters were making Jurrjens work for his outs, most notably in the case of left fielder Ryan Langerhans, who battled through a key, 10-pitch at-bat in the sixth.

Though Langerhans wound up striking out, he helped build up Jurrjens’ pitch count to 109 after only six innings and thus forced Braves manager Bobby Cox to turn things over to his shaky bullpen.

“Those are the types of things we want to do,” Acta said. “I know we’re young and we’re aggressive, but we have to get to a point where we have to learn the strike zone and have a better approach at the plate. Because that will help you in the long run and on an everyday basis, too.”

It paid big dividends Sunday because the Nationals were able to pounce on Dessens, a 37-year-old who was pitching for the Mexico City Red Devils less than a week ago, during a five-run eighth-inning rally. Ryan Zimmerman singled to lead things off, Elijah Dukes drew a walk to set up Boone’s blast and then four more players added hits to the onslaught and sent Washington to an unlikely sixth straight win.

“A lot of times when you’re this many games out of the race, you can mail it in,” Boone said. “And to these guys’ credit, I’ve sensed the opposite.”

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