- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 3, 2009

ATLANTA | Few other pitchers have dominated the Washington Nationals like Derek Lowe. Scan the Nationals’ career numbers against the sinkerball specialist, and it becomes obvious.

Adam Dunn: 3-for-22.

Josh Willingham: 4-for-19.

Ryan Zimmerman: 8-for-32.

After years of flailing away unsuccessfully at Lowe, though, it appears the Nationals are beginning to figure him out. They enjoyed modest success against him in their first five head-to-head matchups this year, winning twice. And Friday night, they finally put it all together and dealt Lowe a legitimate beating for the first time in a long time.

That surge, combined with a solid pitching effort from Livan Hernandez, gave the Nationals a 6-3 victory over the Atlanta Braves and extended their surprising winning streak to five games with only two remaining on the schedule.

This final-week surge won’t be enough for Washington to escape the cellar of the major leagues, but if nothing else it’s leaving a positive taste in everyone’s mouths at the end of an otherwise sour year.

“Hopefully, we can win two more,” Dunn said. “I think that should be our goal. We’ve got five in a row now. It would be really nice to go out with a good, long winning streak.”

Perhaps the most significant development Friday was the return to form of a Nationals lineup that had gone limp in recent weeks. Not since Sept. 13 - a span of 17 games - had that unit recorded at least 10 hits. They broke out of that funk in a big way against Lowe, getting multihit efforts from rookies Ian Desmond and Justin Maxwell as well as Dunn.

Lowe struck out the first two batters of the night, but he went downhill from there. Dunn doubled off the left-field wall to snap an 0-for-26 skid, and the hits started coming in bunches after that.

Desmond’s leadoff homer in the second (the rookie’s third in 19 big league games) put the Nationals on the board. His two-run triple an inning later gave Washington the lead for good.

And when two men came around to score on Alberto Gonzalez’s fifth-inning single to left (with a big assist from Garret Anderson, who threw wildly to the plate), the Nationals had officially taken down Lowe. The veteran right-hander was unceremoniously yanked by manager Bobby Cox, having surrendering six runs on eight hits to a lineup that perhaps has finally figured him out.

“I hope so,” interim manager Jim Riggleman said. “The more you see a pitcher, I think the advantage starts to turn toward the hitter. … It’s good for our guys to get a library of knowledge. The more times they face someone, file it away for next year.”

Atlanta’s hitters have seen plenty of Hernandez over the years and have enjoyed plenty of success against him. (The veteran’s career record against the Braves entering this one: 4-15.) But the wily right-hander had some tricks up his sleeve for this outing.

Though he surrendered nine hits in 6 1/3 innings, Hernandez kept the damage to a minimum. The only runs scored against him came on a David Ross double in the second and on an RBI groundout by Chipper Jones after he had departed in the seventh.

Thus Hernandez’s late-season tryout ended in strong fashion, with the ball now in the Nationals’ court to make a decision whether to re-sign the pending free agent.

“I’d love to play here next year,” he said. “It’s something I want to do. I want to try to win more games next year.”

Though Hernandez’s overall numbers (2-4 with a 5.36 ERA) hardly dazzle, he was credited with quality starts in six of his eight outings. In those starts, he went 2-2 with a 3.38 ERA, perhaps enough success to persuade Washington to bring him back in 2010 as a reliable veteran for the back end of the rotation.

“All that kind of stuff is relative to what [general manager] Mike Rizzo sees out there,” Riggleman said. “But certainly Livan’s going to be pitching somewhere, and I would say the odds are it would be with us. He’s really impressed us.”

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