- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 26, 2009

NEW YORK | It’s only five games out of 44 the Washington Nationals have played this season and thus hardly enough to draw any real conclusions.

But it should be noted that the Nationals’ bullpen - so ridiculed for a wretched six-week period - perhaps has begun to show improvement.

A Washington relief corps that is threatening some of baseball’s all-time records for futility entered Monday night’s game against the New York Mets on a nice little run. Over its last five games, that group posted a 2.30 ERA, more than four runs lower than its mark through the season’s first 39 games.

“I think we’ve executed a little better,” acting general manager Mike Rizzo said. “That’s a good thing. You know, we kept saying things can’t keep going as bad as they’ve been going. And the guys have been executing their pitches better, throwing more strikes. That’s the secret.”

The biggest key to the renaissance has been Joel Hanrahan, who has notched three straight scoreless innings and retired nine of 10 batters in the process. The hit-or-miss closer again is throwing his fastball with confidence, and it shows.

“He’s starting to realize that it’s in the mid-90s,” manager Manny Acta said. “And not too many people can square up a 95 mph fastball.”

After turning their bullpen over multiple times as the unit struggled to close out games, Rizzo and Acta may not need to make many more changes moving forward. They do risk losing Class AAA right-hander Mike MacDougal, who is now allowed to elect for free agency because the Nationals didn’t promote him by Monday, but there hasn’t been an urgent need to call up reinforcements.

Washington will, however, likely drop one reliever in the coming days and return to a seven-man bullpen. That could be trouble for Daniel Cabrera, who walked three in two-thirds of an inning Monday night and was promptly yanked in his first appearance since his demotion from the rotation.

“Fact is, we need to put him into a situation where he can have success,” Acta said. “I’m not going to bring him out there in the ninth inning with the game tied right off the bat. We’re waiting for a situation where he can come out and have a fresh inning, not late and tight. We have to do what’s best for the whole team and not just rearrange things for one guy.”

Johnson returns

Nick Johnson was back in the lineup Monday night after a 48-hour bout with a stomach ailment.

The Nationals first baseman said he first started feeling ill as he drove home after Saturday’s game and barely made it back to his house before suffering the bug’s real wrath.

“I didn’t think I was going to make it home,” he said.

Johnson was then scratched from the lineup Sunday and sent to a hospital, though doctors couldn’t find anything out of the ordinary.

Flores getting close

Catcher Jesus Flores began a rehab assignment Monday night with Class AA Harrisburg, going 2-for-3, and shouldn’t need much time to return to the Washington lineup.

Flores, on the 15-day disabled list since May 10 with a bruised right shoulder, will probably be activated “within days,” according to Rizzo.

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