- The Washington Times - Monday, August 10, 2009

Don’t get Adam Dunn wrong. He’s ecstatic that the Washington Nationals have won eight straight games and somehow have brought excitement to an otherwise miserable season.

But forgive the Nationals’ slugger for playing the “What if?” game in the wake of his club’s latest triumph, Sunday’s 9-2 thumping of the Arizona Diamondbacks. What if the Nationals hadn’t waited until August to start playing quality baseball? Might this winning streak have meant something more?

“This is what I expected from day one, and that’s why it’s so frustrating,” Dunn said. “Because I knew we were capable of playing like this. I wish we would have played this loose and had this much fun earlier in the year and we wouldn’t be however many games back.”

Indeed, when this winning streak began Aug. 2, Washington stood 28 games out in the National League East. The deficit has been trimmed, but it’s still 22 1/2 games, hardly anything to get excited about.

The Nationals, though, have long since accepted their fate. There is no hope of contending for anything, so they’ll simply have to take solace in whatever progress they can achieve in the season’s final two months.

And for these players, many of whom have never experienced an eight-game winning streak, this is something to cherish.

“It’s fun,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “You’re confident no matter what point in the game it is, whether you’re down or ahead. It’s a good feeling. It’s contagious, just like everything else.”

The Nationals’ longest winning streak since a memorable 10-game run in June 2005 catapulted them into first place and had RFK Stadium rocking on a daily basis was extended Sunday thanks to another all-around offensive effort that included 16 hits from 10 players.

The beneficiary was J.D. Martin, the 26-year-old right-hander who in his fifth big league start finally earned his first victory. Martin, who had been roughed up for 13 runs in his previous 16 1/3 innings, turned in his first effective outing to hold the Diamondbacks to one run in five innings.

That lone run came within seconds after he took the mound - Trent Oeltjen led off the game with a homer - but Martin bounced back and pitched his way out of a couple of jams to keep Arizona from scoring again. By day’s end, he had become the latest Washington rookie pitcher to get a shaving-cream pie in the face following his first win.

“It’s awesome,” said Martin, a former first-round draft pick who toiled eight years in Cleveland’s farm system before joining Washington’s this season. “I’ve been waiting to be up here for such a long time. To get my first win, it’s just incredible.”

As they’ve done so often during this hot streak, the Nationals supplied their pitching staff with plenty of offense, racking up nine hits off starter Yusmeiro Petit in four innings and then piling on reliever Scott Schoeneweis for four runs in the eighth to break the game open.

The production came from top to bottom, but Washington’s top five hitters again played a major role. Nyjer Morgan, Cristian Guzman, Zimmerman, Dunn and Josh Willingham combined for nine hits and four walks and scored seven runs.

Four of those five - all but Dunn, who has 30 homers and 84 RBI - are batting .300 or higher. All but Morgan (who is hitting .362 since his acquisition from the Pittsburgh Pirates) have hit in at least eight straight games.

“They’ve got Zimmerman, Dunn and Willingham about as hot as they can get,” Arizona manager A.J. Hinch said. “There’s a lot of damage in there. They’re executing on all facets at this point.”

Throw in a resurgent bullpen that is 8-1 with a 3.08 ERA since the All-Star break, and it’s easy to see why the Nationals have taken flight since Jim Riggleman took over as interim manager. They finished a brutal stretch of 25 games in 25 days coming out of the break with a 14-11 record.

“I’m really proud of the way the guys came through those 25 games,” Riggleman said.

As they showered, dressed and looked forward to their first day off in nearly a month, the Nationals were as boisterous and good-natured as they’ve been in a long time. For one veteran, though, this winning streak is both reason to celebrate and to wonder what might have been.

“It’s good that we’re finally playing the way that we’re capable,” Dunn said. “But it’s frustrating because I know we should have been playing like this since day one.”

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