- The Washington Times - Friday, June 19, 2009

NEW YORK | This road trip - three games against the defending AL champions and three against the league’s resident bullies - wasn’t supposed to end like this. Not when it started and a 2-4 record would have been considered a success, and not when the Washington Nationals were blowing leads and dropping popups in St. Petersburg, Fla., while their manager’s job status was rumored to be on an hour-by-hour basis.

The idea of the Washington Nationals taking two out of three at Yankee Stadium, thoroughly controlling a game delayed by 5 1/2 hours to the point that Yankees fans turned vitriolic on their own team, was preposterous.

And yet, it happened Thursday in a 3-0 victory, resulting in almost assuredly the most improbable series win the Nationals will have this season.

In four short days, the Nationals went from getting swept by the Tampa Bay Rays to beating the Yankees twice in a series they could have swept if not for a late New York comeback on Tuesday. The questions about manager Manny Acta’s job status had, at least momentarily, faded.

“It’s baseball,” Acta said. “We felt despite our record we’d been playing better baseball. We played good defense, these kids threw strikes and we ended up winning a series against one of the top teams in the major leagues.”

The victory was just the Nationals’ eighth on the road this season and their third series win. Even more shocking was the ease with which it came Thursday, with rookie right-hander Craig Stammen shutting the Yankees out for 6 1/3 innings and earning his first big league win thanks to two bugaboos-turned-bulwarks - the Nationals’ bullpen and defense.

Stammen contentedly threw strikes against an aggressive Yankees lineup that came out swinging after spending all day stewing, willing to let his defense make plays behind him.

That was something of a leap of faith given the Nationals’ NL-leading 61 errors. But an outfield of Willie Harris, Corey Patterson and Austin Kearns is about the best configuration manager Manny Acta will be able to give a pitcher this year. For a second straight night, the Nationals’ fielding was clean, even crossing at points into the realm of impressive.

“That’s what they teach us when we’re young - work fast, throw strikes and the defense is going to be better. They’re not going to be on their heels,” said Stammen, whose father, Jeff, flew from Ohio to see him. “They played absolutely amazing tonight.”

In the fifth, Kearns fielded a single from Nick Swisher and made a sharp throw to Cristian Guzman at second to throw out Swisher as he tried for a double. When Hideki Matsui singled on the next at-bat, there was no runner on second.

Harris’ catch in the seventh had the same effect. Alex Rodriguez led off the inning with a searing liner that tracked over Harris’ head in left. He initially turned the wrong way but recovered to make a diving catch, sliding on his stomach near the warning track.

“My first move was back and pretty much the wrong way,” Harris said. “Once I went to the left, I said, ‘Uh oh, this ball’s going to carry back to the right because it’s off a right-handed bat.’ I was able to spin back around, pick it up and make a play for my pitcher.”

The next two batters - Robinson Cano and Swisher - singled and doubled. Again, no runs scored. Harris’ catch saved a run at the start of the inning, and Guzman’s play at the end of it might have saved two.

Ron Villone relieved Stammen, walking pinch hitter Jorge Posada with two outs. Then Derek Jeter, kept out the past two days with a stiff left ankle, bounded up the top step of the dugout to pinch hit for Ramiro Pena, sending the hardy remainder of the 45,143 paying fans into a frenzy.

The Nationals replaced Villone with Julian Tavarez, who worked Jeter to a 1-2 count. He threw one more sinker, and the future Hall of Famer punched it up the middle. Guzman made a sliding stop, flipping to Anderson Hernandez at second and stealing the moment from the man who seems to command them innately in the Bronx.

After Cano singled to start the ninth, Mike MacDougal induced a double play. He earned his second save in as many days - and second since 2006 - when Harris made a slick running catch to end the game.

Stammen had his first win, Acta had momentary vindication and the Nationals had a series win that will be hard to top this year.

“We know we have a young team, and we were going to make mistakes and lose some games,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “Did any of us think we were going to lose this many? No. But I think we’ve made some adjustments, and the past two, three weeks, I think we’ve been playing really good baseball.”

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