- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 6, 2009

There is something funny going on at Nationals Park these days. It’s probably not drawing much attention across baseball, and it’s perhaps not even drawing much attention right here.

Make no mistake, though: The Washington Nationals are playing with purpose. They’re playing with passion. And they’re playing - dare we say it? - good baseball.

With a 5-4 victory Wednesday over the previously unbeatable Florida Marlins, the worst team in the majors took another small step toward respectability. Behind some early offensive fireworks, a ragged yet effective start from John Lannan and a shutdown performance from their remade bullpen, the Nationals earned their fourth straight win.

Go back a bit further, and this team has now won eight of its last 12 games. Setting the world on fire? Hardly. But this is the kind of prolonged stretch of quality baseball heretofore unseen in the District in 2009.

Is this a mere blip on the radar screen or a tangible sign of progress? It’s too early to draw any real conclusions. Suffice it to say, though, this upswing has left everyone inside the Nationals’ clubhouse feeling better about himself and about the chances for salvaging some meaning from a season that appeared utterly lost not long ago.

“Winning fixes a lot of things, man,” first baseman Adam Dunn said. “Kick our record out. We’re having fun.”

Previously incapable of beating the Marlins - who won nine straight head-to-head matchups to open this season - the Nationals now have taken two in a row from their division rivals. They’ll go for their first three-game sweep of the year against any opponent Thursday afternoon.

“We definitely wouldn’t have won these two games earlier in the season,” Lannan said. “Our attitude has changed, and it’s a good sign. We’re finishing this year strong. We’re not giving up, which is a great sign for the rest of this year and going into next year.”

Even when their lineup hasn’t clicked on all cylinders, the Nationals usually have been able to count on the occasional long ball from one of their big bats. Last year’s club collectively hit only 117 home runs, second-to-last in the National League. This year’s club, with 54 games yet to play, already has 103 homers.

Fifty-one of those home runs have come off the bats of Dunn and Ryan Zimmerman, and sure enough those two stalwarts staked Washington to an early 2-0 lead Wednesday night with back-to-back shots in the first inning.

An RBI double by Cristian Guzman in the third, another homer by Ronnie Belliard in the fourth - his first since May 30 - and a subsequent run-scoring triple by Guzman produced three more runs and provided some cushion for Lannan, who needed some assistance for a change.

The budding ace of the Nationals’ staff has been a model of consistency, producing quality starts 10 of the last 12 times he’s toed the rubber. He added another to his resume Wednesday, though he would be the first to insist his start was only average.

Just two Marlins players scored during Lannan’s six innings, but 10 reached base (eight via hit, two via walk). The lefty did strike out six, but all that did was jack up his pitch count to 102 and force him to fight to keep the damage to a minimum.

“It’s more the mental stuff that I’m going to take out [of this start],” he said. “You’ve got to battle. Even without your best stuff, you still can get outs.”

Lannan’s shorter-than-usual outing forced interim manager Jim Riggleman to ask for three innings from his bullpen, a challenge in itself. Sean Burnett, who had been nearly perfect since his arrival from Pittsburgh on June 30, allowed his first two runs since his initial appearance in a Nationals uniform. But newly added right-hander Jorge Sosa clamped down after that, recording six outs to preserve the Nationals’ one-run lead and bridge the gap to Mike MacDougal.

Washington’s closer then blew away the Marlins’ top three hitters in the ninth, striking out Hanley Ramirez with a 3-2 fastball to secure his 10th save in 11 opportunities and - more importantly - prolong the Nationals’ hot streak for at least another day.

“A lot of good baseball out there,” Riggleman said. “We weren’t perfectly clean, but we played a pretty clean ballgame. It’s good for them to realize that we can win these close games.”

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