- The Washington Times - Friday, June 12, 2009

The Washington Nationals may not be able to record a clutch hit, but for one day at least they somehow managed to win a ballgame in spite of it.

With an eighth-inning rally Thursday that was more luck than anything, the Nationals pulled out a 3-2 victory over the Cincinnati Reds. Who cares that none of their three runs scored on a base hit? For this team, it was cause for celebration.

Stymied all afternoon with runners on base, Washington somehow strung together a game-winning rally off the Cincinnati bullpen. Singles by Willie Harris, Anderson Hernandez and Alberto Gonzalez left the bases loaded and one out for Ryan Zimmerman, one of several key members of the Nationals’ lineup battling through a slump.

Zimmerman hardly made solid contact on Nick Masset’s 3-1 pitch, but his slow roller to short was hit softly enough to keep the Reds from turning a double play. Second baseman Brandon Phillips then fired an ill-advised throw to first that got away, allowing Guzman to sprint home with the go-ahead run.

Setup man Joe Beimel, pressed into the closer role because Mike MacDougal had pitched the last three days in nonsave situations, finished off the ninth to secure Washington’s second win in its last eight games.

The late rally got starter John Lannan off the hook for the loss, not that he deserved a loss in this one. The left-hander allowed just two runs (one earned) and five hits in six strong innings, certainly good enough to deserve the win. He wasn’t outstanding, putting eight guys on base, but he basically made pitches when he had to and avoided serious trouble.

The Reds’ lone runs off Lannan came via a Zimmerman error and a soft single by Alex Gonzalez in the fourth. Otherwise, the de facto ace of Washington’s staff did his part to secure victory.

Of course, that’s not enough these days to walk away with a “W” — not the way the Nationals’ lineup is struggling.

This prolonged offensive slump is becoming quite a concern. The Nationals had been held to two or fewer runs in six of their previous seven games, all losses.

Before Thursday’s game, manager Manny Acta discussed his players’ penchant to rely too much on the big bop instead of a simple RBI single.

“We can’t slug away every single day,” the manager said. “We’re going to have to win some 3-2, 2-1 ballgames and for that, we’re going to need the big hits. We’re going to need one of those guys to step up.”

No one was willing to step up Thursday despite numerous opportunities.

Reds starter Micah Owings, who entered with a 3-7 record and 4.90 ERA, put at least one man on base in each of his six innings on the mound. But the Nationals didn’t score a run until Owings had already been lifted from the game.

Washington was 0-for-14 with runners on base until Nieves singled to left off Owings in the sixth. Nick Johnson came off the bench and singled off reliever Jared Burton to load the bases. Guzman did manage to push a precious run across but did so on a weak grounder to third.

Opportunities continued to present themselves after that. The Nationals had two on and two out in the seventh, but Austin Kearns — mired in a miserable slump — swung and missed at a 2-2 slider well out of the strike zone, drawing a resounding chorus of boos from the crowd of 19,703.

Just about everyone on the Washington roster is struggling at the plate right now, but Kearns’ difficulties are perhaps the most staggering. The veteran outfielder is hitting .154 with zero RBI in his last 25 games. During that span, he has more than twice as many strikeouts (24) as base hits (10).

Kearns, who is making $8 million this season and has a $10 million club option for 2010, probably will keep getting opportunities in the next week because the Nationals are playing interleague games on the road and will be using Adam Dunn as designated hitter. But his time could be running out.

“We need him to step up,” Acta said. “We’re going to see what he is going to do now in this interleague series because it is going to give us an opportunity to have an extra hitter there. Then after that, we’re going to have to make a decision.”

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