- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 5, 2009

How many times, in the wake of another nip-and-tuck loss, has Manny Acta lamented the poor situational hitting that proved the difference in a ballgame? How many times in the last three months have the Washington Nationals squandered scoring opportunities by popping up on the first pitch or grounding into a double play when a lazy fly ball would have made all the difference?

Had the Nationals been only mildly more productive in that department, their 23-55 record would resemble something far more respectable and would have taken pressure off a pitching staff that too often has let games slip away itself.

So on a splendid Independence Day in the District that featured all sorts of developments - eight strong innings from John Lannan, Adam Dunn’s 300th career homer, a shaky ninth from Mike MacDougal - perhaps the most encouraging sight was a seven-batter stretch in the eighth inning that turned a loss to the Atlanta Braves into an uplifting 5-3 victory.

Seven plate appearances with the game on the line, starting with a pinch-hit single by Ronnie Belliard and ending with an RBI single by Josh Willingham, were as productive as anything the Nationals have strung together this season.

“It’s not like we sat back and waited for someone to hit a five-run home run,” catcher Josh Bard said. “If we want to be a winning team, those are the kind of innings we’ve got to put together.”

When the Nationals came to bat for that deciding bottom of the eighth, they trailed 3-1 and had shown little life at the plate to that point. Stymied by rookie Tommy Hanson, who extended his scoreless innings streak to 26 before Dunn touched him up for a solo shot in the seventh, the Nationals were well on their way to another hard-luck loss defined by solid pitching and a complete lack of clutch hitting.

But Dunn’s towering homer, which nearly cleared the second deck in right field at Nationals Park, served as something of a wake-up call. For the crowd of 23,708, which serenaded the milestone-setting slugger with a curtain call. And for Washington’s dugout, which sensed a shift in momentum.

After watching Dunn’s homer, Lannan told the cleanup man he knew the Nationals were going to win the game.

“Yeah, he said it in the seventh inning,” Dunn confirmed. “Maybe he sees dead people, too.”

The man who got the rally started hadn’t displayed any signs of life in weeks.

Belliard stepped to the plate hitless in his last 13 at-bats, a slump that dropped his average to .159 and has left him in danger of getting released. But in battling reliever Mike Gonzalez through a seven-pitch at-bat, capped by a single to left field, Belliard set the tone for the rest of the inning. Bard followed by getting into a 1-2 hole, then battling his way back to draw a walk and place the tying runners on base.

“A lot of credit goes to Belliard and Bard,” Acta said. “They had two professional at-bats and started the whole inning.”

Perhaps the best at-bat of the rally, though, came in the form of a sacrifice bunt from newly acquired leadoff man Nyjer Morgan. Morgan successfully moved both runners into scoring position, a seemingly innocuous task that has proved impossible for Washington’s batters this year.

Another walk, this one drawn by Nick Johnson, loaded the bases and brought Ryan Zimmerman to the plate. Atlanta manager Bobby Cox countered with sidewinder Peter Moylan, but Zimmerman - who was in a 1-for-12 slump - rapped a grounder up the middle for a base hit. Belliard and Bard (a slow runner hampered even more by a sore groin) both scored, and the game was tied.

“I’m just glad to get a hit,” Zimmerman said. “It’s been a tough few games. To be able to battle and come through with the hit, it’s nice.”

Now the winning run was standing on third base, with Dunn at the plate. Cox countered this time with lefty Eric O’Flaherty, knowing Dunn is a career .237 hitter against southpaws. Naturally, the big slugger jumped all over O’Flaherty’s first-pitch fastball and lined a single to right-center, scoring Johnson with the go-ahead run.

Willingham capped everything off with an RBI single of his own, giving the Nationals a 5-3 lead and providing MacDougal enough cushion to be able to walk two batters in the ninth but still emerge with his fourth save.

Afterward, smiles and laudatory words were offered from everyone toward Lannan, toward Dunn, toward the fans who were on their feet for the final three innings. Ultimately, though, the real credit for the victory went to the seven men who stepped to the plate in the eighth inning and each in his own way did something productive to contribute to a very satisfying win.

“That’s part of us growing up and getting better as a team,” Zimmerman said. “You have to take advantage of those opportunities when you get them.”

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