- The Washington Times - Monday, August 3, 2009

PITTSBURGH | For four months now, the Washington Nationals have done enough little things wrong to lose seemingly on a daily basis. It was refreshing, then, to see this woebegone outfit play a crisp, clean ballgame Sunday and actually do several little things right en route to a 5-3 victory against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

One well-played ballgame hardly makes up for the numerous less-impressive showings that came before, but this triumph to snap a four-game losing streak certainly let everyone inside the Washington clubhouse breathe a sigh of relief for a change.

“We needed that win,” reliever Ron Villone said. “We’ve been playing better than the result. We’ve been not getting it done here and there, but we’ve still been playing better baseball.”

Better baseball hasn’t always resulted in victories, so sometimes the Nationals (33-72) need a reminder that there are perhaps better days ahead. And if they continue to get the kind of pitching and defense that defined Sunday’s win, the next two months should be markedly more enjoyable than the previous four.

This victory was made possible by clutch hits from Josh Willingham (who hit a two-run homer in the seventh and added an RBI double in the eighth) and Alberto Gonzalez (who lined a run-scoring double of his own in the seventh). It also was made possible by some nifty relief work from Villone and Sean Burnett, who recorded key outs against the only batters they faced.

And don’t discount catcher Wil Nieves throwing out three baserunners or Elijah Dukes going in hard at second base to break up a double play and ultimately allowing a run to score.

But the tone was set by starter Collin Balester, who turned in his second straight solid performance to give the Nationals a chance to win. The rookie right-hander really only made one mistake in his 5 2/3 innings: an 0-2 fastball to Ronny Cedeno in the third that came back over the plate and landed in the left-field bleachers for a two-run homer.

Otherwise, Balester was in command, working fast and getting ahead in the count while giving himself a chance to pitch deep into the game. Through five innings, he had thrown 44 of 65 pitches for strikes.

“It’s a huge part of the game, just throwing strikes,” he said. “That’s what they teach you in Little League, all the way to now. I’ve finally gotten it this year: just throw strikes and get ahead early. Make them hit my pitch.”

Balester was denied his fifth career victory because the Nationals trailed 2-1 when he departed. But soon after, Willingham tattooed a 1-1 pitch from lefty Paul Maholm to left for a two-run homer that gave Washington the lead, and Gonzalez added his RBI double moments later.

It was then the bullpen’s task to preserve that lead - a task the unit has too often been unable to complete. Complicating matters, the Nationals are without their one consistent reliever, having sent veteran Joe Beimel to the Colorado Rockies before Friday’s trade deadline.

Interim manager Jim Riggleman, though, managed to cobble together 3 1/3 innings out of five hurlers, counting on Burnett and Villone to come through with huge outs.

Burnett - a former Pirates pitcher who was greeted with boos Sunday from fans who apparently weren’t happy that he called Pittsburgh “the laughingstock of baseball” before this series - entered with two on and Ryan Doumit at the plate in the sixth and proceeded to get the cleanup man to pop out to end the inning.

“The ovation kind of pumped me up,” said Burnett, who wound up earning the win. “It’s not the kind of ovation you want, but it got my adrenaline running.”

Newly promoted Jorge Sosa was handed the ball for the seventh, and though he served up a homer to the first batter he faced, the veteran finished the inning without suffering any more damage. Jason Bergmann then shook off a leadoff single in the eighth to retire Andrew McCutchen and Lastings Milledge before handing the ball to Villone, who got Garrett Jones to fly out to end the inning.

Throw in a scoreless ninth from Mike MacDougal, who earned his seventh save in eight tries, and the Nationals had themselves a tidy little win after four months of efforts that mostly came up short.

“I think there has been a good amount of energy from our guys from April on,” Riggleman said. “Considering what our guys have been through - with the number of losses and the way we’ve lost games - I think the energy level has been real good.”

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