- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 9, 2009

Even in winning each of their previous six games, the Washington Nationals had admittedly not played perfect baseball. Too often they forced themselves to dig out of big holes or got poor starting pitching or beat up on a weak opponent.

But consecutive victory No. 7 - a 5-2 triumph against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Saturday night - may have been as impressive a ballgame as they’ve played all season.

“If you could draw a ballgame up, that’s how you want to do it right there,” interim manager Jim Riggleman said. “A good, crisp game. Low scoring. A lot of good elements.”

Indeed, this one had it all. Garrett Mock turned in a quality start for the first time to earn his first win as a big league starter. The Nationals’ bullpen gave the Diamondbacks no sliver of hope of a comeback, retiring all nine batters faced. And an opportunistic lineup continued to mash the ball all around Nationals Park, this time against one of the top pitchers in baseball.

Put it all together, and the Nationals have their longest winning streak since a memorable 10-game run in June 2005 that propelled them into first place in the NL East. This stretch might be more staggering - given the depths from which it started.

“We’re coming the ballpark expecting to win now,” reliever Sean Burnett said. “That’s something that wasn’t here a couple weeks ago.”

The most impressive aspect of Saturday’s win surely was the manner in which Washington pounded Arizona’s Dan Haren for five runs in six innings. The Cy Young Award contender was victimized by just about everyone in the lineup and served up homers to Josh Willingham and Josh Bard, the two biggest blows that brought a roar from the crowd of 24,551.

The Nationals, who have been stuck on 72 losses since Aug. 1, had beaten up on plenty of lesser pitchers in the past week. This, though, was the first legitimate ace they’ve beaten all season.

“When you can get an early run off a guy like that, it helps,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “He’s a tough guy to face every night. Fortunately, he made a couple of mistakes, and we took advantage of it.”

Strong offensive showing or not, Washington’s latest win was made possible primarily through strong pitching, especially from its starter. This winning streak has actually included several Washington starters struggling to make it through even five innings, forcing a resurgent bullpen to pick up the slack.

Mock, then, faced a stiff challenge Saturday. The 26-year-old right-hander not only needed to give his team a boost, he needed to give himself a boost after a ragged few weeks back in the majors.

Bounced back and forth between Washington and Class AAA the past two seasons, from the rotation to the bullpen and back to the rotation, Mock still hadn’t provided evidence he could be a successful big league starter. But with six strong innings against the Diamondbacks - the club that traded him and Matt Chico for Livan Hernandez three years ago - he at last looked the part.

“There comes a point in time where if I go 4 1/3 every game, that’s not really making much of a statement,” he said. “But tonight… my mindset was if they’re going to let me throw and let me stretch it out a little bit, I’m going to try to save the bullpen. I was definitely trying to go deeper in the game.”

Mock’s lone mistake was a 3-2 fastball to Mark Reynolds in the fourth. The Arizona slugger lofted it down the left-field line and off the foul pole for a two-run homer, his 35th of the season (one shy of Albert Pujols for the major league lead).

Otherwise, the right-hander was firmly in control. He scattered five hits and three walks in six innings, struck out seven and - most importantly - gave his team a chance to win.

That’s not something Mock has been able to say in the past. In seven previous career starting assignments, he had yet to be credited with a quality start. Having finally cleared that hurdle Saturday, he was free to reap the rewards of only his second career win, one that perhaps secured his place in the rotation moving forward.

“We don’t have any ultimatums on him or anything,” Riggleman said. “He may be putting something like that on himself, like he had to go out there and pitch a great ballgame. But I think that’s a good thing to do for him. I think you should put a little pressure on yourself and try to take it to the next level. And he did.

“He had his best performance.”

• Mark Zuckerman can be reached at mzuckerman@washingtontimes.com.

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