- The Washington Times - Friday, June 12, 2009

Unable to record a clutch hit all afternoon - and, really, for the better part of the last three weeks - the Washington Nationals tried their best to spoil their own game-winning rally Thursday.

They bunted into a fielder’s choice for the second time in the game. They misread looping singles to center and had to hold up at third instead of scoring. And with the game on the line, their best hitter tapped a slow dribbler to short that wouldn’t have frightened a Little League infielder.

And yet somehow, some way, the Nationals pulled out a 3-2 victory over the Cincinnati Reds. Who cares that none of their three runs scored on base hits? For this cursed team, this was reason to celebrate, crank up the clubhouse stereo and not overanalyze a win that easily could have been a loss.

As Adam Dunn succinctly put it: “We needed that.”

Did they ever. The Nationals, who entered this series finale with only five wins in their last 29 games and enough squandered opportunities at the plate during that time to last a full summer, finally caught a break.

Stymied all afternoon in key spots - they were 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position and 2-for-21 with runners on base through seven innings - they strung together a game-winning rally off the Cincinnati bullpen in the eighth.

Willie Harris and Anderson Hernandez got things started with singles, but Harris was wiped out when Cristian Guzman bunted too hard back to the mound to set up a forceout at third. Alberto Gonzalez followed with a single to center that probably should have scored Hernandez, but he misread the sinking liner and held up.

“I felt like we got the first two guys on with the right people up at the plate,” manager Manny Acta said. “I said, ‘There’s no way we’re not going to pull it off right here.’ They still made it tough.”

Yes, but they found a way somehow. With the bases loaded and one out, Ryan 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 and allowed Guzman to sprint home with the go-ahead run.

Three singles, two forceouts and a throwing error. That’s a game-winning rally, Washington-style.

“Hey, we’ll take runs any way we can get them right now,” Harris said.

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 his first save in more than two years.

The late rally got starter John Lannan off the hook for the loss - not that he deserved 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.

“He did a very nice job for us again,” Acta said.

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

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, and were 6-for-37 with runners in scoring position over that time.

They went 2-for-14 in those situations Thursday but managed to push all three runs across on ground ball forceouts.

“I wouldn’t say that we’re overtrying,” Dunn said. “It’s just gotten so bad that everyone’s trying to get that big hit, hit that big home run, and putting added pressure on themselves.”

At least one man, though, never doubted his teammates would come from behind to win Thursday.

“I knew we were going to win this game when I came into the clubhouse [after the sixth],” Lannan said.

With all due respect, the left-hander was asked, what on earth made him believe that?

“I don’t know. Just being positive,” he said. “If you’re going to be on a winning team, you’ve got to think win. You always want to go out and give it your best. I just had a feeling we were going to win this one. I feel that every game, but today I really thought we were going to win.”

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