- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 12, 2009

HOUSTON | About once every 10 days, the Washington Nationals turn in the kind of effort that makes you wonder how it is that they have the worst record in baseball.

Squint just hard enough on these nights, and you’ll see an offense stacked at the top with dangerous hitters capable of changing a game with one swing and a young pitching staff that’s getting better by the week. There’s no possible way the sum of these parts could equal only 26 wins in 86 games, is there?

But these nights, rare as they are, shoot just enough adrenaline into the Nationals to sustain them through a set of confounding losses.

The Nationals needed one of those performances Saturday night, and they got it. In a 13-2 win against the Houston Astros, every starter had at least one hit. Two players had two hits, and another three had three or more.

These are the nights on which manager Manny Acta, the team’s front office and the most optimistic Nationals fans build hopes for the future. Consistency, that magic elixir that transforms potential into progress, isn’t yet in regular supply in the District, which is why the Nationals on most nights are a disparate, underperforming collection of established veterans and unrefined youngsters.

Starter Craig Stammen, handed the Nationals’ best offensive performance of the season, cruised efficiently to his first career complete game with the help of some reliable glovework by the team’s infield. And Nick Johnson, Josh Willingham and Adam Dunn blasted home runs in succession that effectively ended the game.

“This is the first night we’ve actually broke open a game,” Dunn said. “That was a very fun game to be a part of.”

Having lost the first five games of this road trip - three by one run and two in blowout fashion - the Nationals couldn’t have used an uplifting win more than they did Saturday night. They were coming off a 6-5 loss to the Astros where they had battled back to take the lead before giving up two runs in the last two innings and seeing the potential go-ahead run thrown out at home in the ninth. Reliever Joe Beimel called the team’s propensity for losing games “beyond embarrassing,” and the Nationals looked like a team limping toward the All-Star break.

They looked like something else from the beginning Saturday. Washington got four hits and two runs off Astros lefty Mike Hampton in the first inning, though those totals could have been five and three had Dunn touched second base before heading home on Josh Bard’s nullified double.

Stammen was impressive for the second time on this road trip, following his seven innings of one-run ball with a complete game facilitated by a sharp curveball that took some stress off his two-seam fastball once the Astros started hitting it in the sixth inning.

“I started using my breaking ball early in the game,” Stammen said. “I threw a few more off-speed pitches early, pitch inside, they haven’t seen my sinker as much so I can use that later in the game. It’s just learning how to pitch a little more at this level.”

The Astros tied the score at 2-2 in the third, but it was the last time this one would be in question. Washington dropped a blizzard of runs on Houston, scoring 11 from the fourth through the sixth innings. And this was without All-Star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who was available only for pinch-hit duty after returning from his grandmother’s funeral in North Carolina.

The Nationals never needed their franchise player, mainly because their 3-4-5 lineup of Johnson, Willingham and Dunn, reconfigured to split two left-handed hitters up against Hampton, led the barrage.

In the sixth inning, Johnson pulled a Felipe Paulino fastball just over the right-field wall for his first homer since June 6. Willingham, batting .393 in his past 16 games, followed with a shot to the short porch in left field, and Dunn punched a 3-2 fastball over the left-field wall.

It was the first time since Aug. 23, 1997, the franchise had back-to-back-to-back homers, and just the second time in MLB this year.

In his next at-bat - after Alberto Gonzalez doubled for his fourth hit and Stammen drove him in with a double - Willingham crushed a fastball from Jeff Fulchino so far that it shot through the arches in left field and landed in the concourse on the fly.

The right fielder has 11 homers in the past two months and is so hot the Nationals might want to consider lobbying for him as an injury replacement in the All-Star Game, just so he doesn’t have to put a bat down for three days.

“When Kearns started the season, he was playing well. You couldn’t just sit him down,” Acta said. “Everybody had to wait their turn. He outhit everybody. That’s the way the game works.”

Said Willingham: “It was obviously a completely different roster when the season started. I sort of had to earn my keep. Once I got to play, I felt like I could contribute.”

On this night, when the Nationals set season highs for runs, hits, extra-base hits and total bases, he wasn’t alone.

Just one of those nights.

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