- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 29, 2009

MILWAUKEE | All season, the Washington Nationals have operated under the belief that baseball’s accounting books would eventually balance out. The balls falling under their gloves would finally land safely in the leather, the bullpen held together with chewing gum and fishing lines would eventually stay in one piece and the contributions of a workmanlike offense would at last lead to wins.

They’ve turned it into a mantra, in one form or another, so often that when their record slid 20, then 30, then 40 games under .500, they began to look delusional.

And a four-game winning streak, if it ends Wednesday, won’t come close to correcting the four months of ineptitude that have largely marked the Nationals’ 2009 season. But if it continues, it might signal the long-promised hot streak is finally here.

Tuesday’s 8-3 win over the Milwaukee Brewers certainly provided evidence of that. One night after pummeling the Brewers 14-6, the Nationals did nothing nearly as dramatic in beating Milwaukee for the second straight time. Where there were historic feats the night before, Tuesday night brought simple, quiet efficiency. But seeing that, at this point in the season, might be more important to the Nationals’ development than getting to parade Josh Willingham and his back-to-back grand slams all over national TV.

The chief catalyst in Tuesday’s win was Collin Balester, the sometimes-promising, sometimes-confounding prospect who made his major league debut about 13 months ago and has been working to corral his sizable potential ever since.

Filling in for Jordan Zimmermann, the rookie who beat Balester out for a rotation spot in spring training and still had 25 friends and family members make the 150-mile drive from his hometown of Auburndale, Wis., for Tuesday’s game, Balester turned in what might have been his best start since last July. He threw 93 pitches in six innings, 60 of them for strikes, and allowed just two runs on five hits while walking none.

Balester struck out only three, but his start had the pitch-to-contact efficiencies that pitching coach Steve McCatty loves, and he made it through a start without a walk for just the fourth time in 17 big league outings.

Balester also had a lead handed to him when Nyjer Morgan smacked Carlos Villanueva’s second pitch of the game to center for the second leadoff homer of his career.

Balester gave back the lead when J.J. Hardy drove in Corey Hart with a single in the second.

On the first at-bat of the fourth inning, though, Adam Dunn gave the Nationals the lead for good with one of those titanic blasts that only someone like Dunn can deliver, a shot that flashed off his bat cleanly and squarely, then quickly rocketed out of view.

Josh Willingham and Willie Harris followed with singles, then Wil Nieves added one two batters later. Morgan split the game open with his two-run single, scoring Harris and Nieves and giving him a career-high three RBI.

The Nationals had four runs by the time the inning was over, and another three when Cristian Guzman homered off Tim Dillard in the eighth inning, putting Washington up 8-2, giving the Nationals 38 runs in their last four games and erasing almost any chance the Brewers had of coming back.

And the thread holding everything together was again the Nationals’ defense, unspectacular but also free of the rally-sustaining gaffes they committed with such spectacular regularity earlier in the season.

They were without an error for the fourth straight game after committing four in a 6-2 loss to the Padres last Friday that had interim manager Jim Riggleman tearing into the Nationals for their effort level.

The task for the Nationals now is to make four-game winning streaks something less than an extraordinary occurrence the rest of the season. They’ve had only two this year while suffering seven different losing streaks of four games or more.

But for the Nationals to nudge themselves away from laughingstock status, they had to get a start somewhere. This may be it.

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