- The Washington Times - Friday, May 22, 2009

Craig Stammen had done just about everything the Washington Nationals could have asked of him in his big league debut. He retired the first 12 batters he faced and 19 of the first 20 Pittsburgh Pirates who stepped to the plate.

Yet when the rookie right-hander walked off the mound in the seventh inning Thursday night to a standing ovation, the Nationals were trailing by a run and Stammen was in line for the loss. Inside the first-base dugout, the rest of Washington’s roster came to the same conclusion: We can’t let the kid walk out of here with a loss.

And they didn’t. With four consecutive singles in the eighth, the Nationals rallied to retake the lead and then watched as Joel Hanrahan blew away the Pirates in the ninth to secure a 5-4 victory that snapped a seven-game losing streak and left everyone in a good mood for the first time in a while.

“Whenever somebody comes out there and gives you an effort like that, you obviously want to do everything you can to reward him,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “It was nice to be able to come back and get him off the hook because he did throw so well.”

Zimmerman was right in the middle of the winning rally, with his RBI single off lefty Tom Gorzelanny coming after base hits by Cristian Guzman and Nick Johnson; it was followed by another RBI single by Adam Dunn.

Those four batters, the first and most-trusted members of Manny Acta’s lineup, have been producing all season. They’ve scored 52 percent and driven in 49 percent of the Nationals’ runs and are the primary reason this team feels like it can come back from just about every conceivable deficit.

“They set the tone, those guys,” the manager said. “They’ve been money for us offensively, getting on base and swinging a hot bat the whole time. Those are the guys you want up there any time we’re in a pinch.”

The rally allowed Stammen’s big league debut to end on a positive note. A bit of an unknown commodity as recently as a year ago, Stammen saw his profile rise after developing a two-seam sinker that proved far more effective than his four-seam fastball and allowed him to transform from a struggling power pitcher into an effective control artist. And when he mowed down the Detroit Tigers’ “A” lineup during a spot start this spring, Washington’s big league staff suddenly realized he was someone to watch.

So when the Nationals needed a starter Thursday night, they didn’t hesitate to promote the 25-year-old, who had been 4-2 with a 1.80 ERA at Class AAA Syracuse. It didn’t take long for Stammen to prove he belongs. He cruised through the first inning, throwing 11 of 15 pitches for strikes. He retired the side again in the second, then again in the third and again in the fourth.

Just like that, there was buzz in the ballpark, the prospects of a history-making outing suddenly within the realm of possibility.

“I mean, I knew that was going on,” Stammen said. “But I kept telling myself: ‘I’ve got to get the next three hitters out.’ ”

The perfect game, of course, didn’t happen. Stammen gave up a leadoff double to Adam LaRoche in the fifth, but he bounced back to retire the next seven he faced and carry a 3-1 lead into the seventh.

That’s when it all came crashing down. It began with his first walk of the night, then was punctuated by LaRoche’s towering, two-run homer to right. As the ball sailed toward the second deck, Dunn stood motionless in right field, knowing he had no play whatsoever.

Acta got his bullpen going, but Julian Tavarez couldn’t get warmed up fast enough to bail out Stammen. Brandon Moss followed LaRoche’s homer with a double to left-center, and Andy LaRoche had an RBI single up the middle to bring Moss around and gave the Pirates a 4-3 lead.

“He made it look easy,” Acta said. “Obviously, as he found out later, it’s not that easy, but he did a very nice job for us.”

After the eighth-inning rally, Stammen was off the hook. Hanrahan - whose roller-coaster season hit a new low Wednesday when he allowed the winning run to score on a wild pitch - came on to blow away the Pirates in the ninth with 17 fastballs to only two sliders. That capped a satisfying night for a young pitcher who has a memory to last a lifetime.

Said Stammen: “I had a blast.”

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