- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Do not call the Washington Nationals spoilers. They loathe the term. As far as they’re concerned, they’re just trying to win as many ballgames as they can down the stretch of a miserable season.

“We’re not spoilers,” manager Manny Acta said. “We’re the Washington Nationals. We’re just trying to snap a five-game losing streak that we had.”

Good luck convincing the New York Mets of that.

The Mets know all too well about the power of the spoiler, the memory of last September’s historic collapse - made possible in large part by five losses to the Nationals in the season’s final two weeks - still fresh in their minds.

So even if Washington’s clubhouse was taking little glee in dealing New York a blow Monday night with a 7-2 win, forgive the Mets if they were experiencing a mild case of deja vu as this one played out.

Behind a sharp pitching performance from John Lannan, who allowed one hit over seven innings, and some clutch hitting from Anderson Hernandez and Elijah Dukes - who combined to drive in five runs with two outs - the Nationals coasted to victory and dealt at least a momentary blow to New York’s playoff hopes.

The loss leaves the Mets up a half-game on the surging Philadelphia Phillies (winners of four straight) for the NL East lead. Perhaps somewhere in the recesses of their minds, thoughts of another September swoon courtesy of the Nationals are resurfacing. If not, the rabid New York media certainly will remind them.

The Mets had no answer for either of the two young left-handers Acta threw at them in this game. Lannan, who improved to 9-13, obviously had his way with the opposition. But it was rookie reliever Mike Hinckley who escaped the night’s biggest jam.

Entrusted by Acta to face David Wright (owner of a .390 average against lefties) with the bases loaded in the eighth, Hinckley induced a double-play grounder and prevented New York from getting back into this game.

“For Manny to keep me in, that does boost your confidence,” said Hinckley, who has yet to allow a run in any of his nine big league appearances.

With a persistent offensive attack that included four runs off Pedro Martinez and then Dukes’ three-run homer off Duaner Sanchez in the seventh, the Nationals looked quite comfortable beating the division leaders before a crowd of 21,759.

“The experience is good because they’re playing games that mean something, whether it’s for us or for the other club,” Acta said. “I think every one of those experiences is good for those guys because when it’s our turn to be in the middle of that, then they’ve been exposed to it.”

That includes Lannan. After a strong run for about 4 1/2 months, he has hit a bit of a snag lately, posting a 7.82 ERA over his last five starts entering this one. Though he has insisted his arm has felt strong all along, the 23-year-old is trying to remain physically and mentally strong through the final stretch of the longest baseball season of his life.

“This is uncharted territory for me,” he said. “September is a big month to finish strong and to build on it going into spring training.”

If there was any fear about Lannan returning to face the Mets six days after getting torched by the same lineup for five runs in three innings, they were quickly put to rest.

New York managed all of one hit off Lannan, a Brian Schneider double to lead off the third. A sacrifice bunt and a groundout brought the former Washington catcher home, but that was the extent of the Mets’ offense.

Lannan ensured there wouldn’t be anything more by keeping New York’s hitters off balance with an assortment of pitches, none more important than the change-up he frequently threw to left-handed hitters, something he hadn’t tried before.

The new strategy certainly worked in this case, and when Lannan struck out Fernando Tatis to end the seventh, he and his teammates realized they were about to inflict serious damage on the Mets’ playoffs hopes yet again.

“Whenever we go out there, we just want to win,” catcher Wil Nieves said. “But it’s huge when you have a team like the Mets. They’re in first place now, and we can beat them. It’s always good when you beat the best teams.”

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