- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The topic of the mound meeting between Randy St. Claire, Joel Hanrahan and Jesus Flores on Monday night, with the Atlanta Braves 90 feet from tying the game and costing Hanrahan his third save chance in five days, was data culled from scouting reports, like a point-by-point map to get the Washington Nationals’ closer out of a forest.

The map got Hanrahan to a successful conclusion as the Nationals held on to beat the Braves 4-3.

St. Claire instructed Hanrahan to throw a slider on the first pitch to Yunel Escobar, saying the Braves shortstop was sure to swing at it.

But when Hanrahan situated himself on the mound, ready to deliver home with runners on second and third and two outs, Flores never put down a sign. It might have been hubris or it might have been a hunch, but Hanrahan didn’t throw the slider. He fired a 94 mph fastball on the outer half of the plate but up in the strike zone, knowing if Escobar didn’t swing at it, Flores might not be ready for it behind the plate.

“I said, ‘I’m going to throw this fastball as hard as I can and make sure it’s outside,’ ” Hanrahan said. “Luckily he hit it - otherwise Flores might have wound up wearing that one pretty good.”

Hanrahan got his ground ball out anyway, taking some mock grief from Flores in the postgame handshake about the pitch that might have drilled the catcher in the chest.

“I was like, ‘OK, just focus on the pitch.’ He was so excited, like, ‘Yeah! Yeah!’ And I was like, ‘What do you mean, yeah? We just talked about it - slider, first pitch!’ ” Flores said. “He said, ‘I thought you said fastball, first pitch.’ 94. But we got the out.”

In Hanrahan’s maturation as a closer, there are likely to be more nights like Tuesday. The important thing for the Nationals, though, is that he’s getting through them.

It was the Nationals’ second win in as many days, and it improved their record to 3-10 for the year. It was the fourth time in five games the team has had a one-run lead in the ninth but only the second time the Nationals have come out with a win.

Hanrahan gave up a walk and a double to start the ninth, putting runners on second and third and jeopardizing the Nationals’ chances at a win after a sixth-inning rally put Shairon Martis in line for the victory.

But somehow, he survived.

“There’s no clock,” manager Manny Acta said. “When you think you’re in, you’re out. When you think you’re out, you’re in. He blew a save a couple of days ago by three runs, and when you have second and third with no outs, he toughed it out.”

In the process, he helped make Martis the Nationals’ first two-game winner.

Martis, even on a night where he reverted at times to the timid approach that got him behind hitters last season, kept the Braves in check well enough for the Nationals to take the lead.

But whatever mistakes Martis made his first time through the lineup, he reined in the second and third times. He gave up four hits the rest of the night after allowing two in the first, using a slider early in counts and being more direct with his location. He came out for Josh Willingham in the sixth inning, having gotten that far in only 89 pitches despite walking four, and left with his second straight quality start.

Willingham, at the plate with Austin Kearns on third and two out in the sixth, also put Martis in line for his second win in a row when he pinched a single in between Chipper Jones and the left-field line, scoring Kearns and giving the Nationals a 4-3 lead.

That single capped the scoring in a three-run sixth that began with Adam Dunn dropping a 0-1 pitch onto the grass slope in center field.

The comeback was the product of a Nationals offense again showing its growth. One night after forcing Derek Lowe to throw 115 pitches in six innings, Washington saw 93 off Kenshin Kawakami in five innings. The Nationals generated only one run off the Japanese right-hander, but all the pitches they took forced Braves manager Bobby Cox to turn to Atlanta’s rickety bullpen sooner than he wanted.

It’s something the Nationals simply couldn’t do last year. But this year, they’re among the NL leaders in pitches per plate appearance. Whether the change is due to hitters maturing or Nick Johnson and Adam Dunn being in the lineup this year is difficult to say. But it helped facilitate the rally that gave the Nationals the lead for good.

“Every team’s weakest link is their middle reliever,” Acta said. “There’s a reason why they’re pitching in the middle. … [Taking pitches] is something that’s going to continue to happen because the guys that are doing it, they’ve been doing it.”

And if Hanrahan can keep surviving, the Nationals might have found a formula for some consistency.

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