- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Nationals came into their second game of 2011 still searching for their first runs of the season and they came out of it with a roadmap for how they could put together a significant amount of their wins this year.

The emphasis the Nationals placed on the fundamentals this spring were all on display Saturday in a 6-3 victory over the Braves, Washington’s first win of the season.

They forced Braves starter Tommy Hanson to throw 68 pitches in 3 2/3 innings; they were aggressive on the basepaths, again played clean, crisp defense and were extremely adept at sacrificing runners. They even proved that, every now and then, they can send out a home run or two.

But perhaps nothing exemplified those fundamentals more than the same man who hit a two-run homer in the third inning, center fielder Rick Ankiel, then perfectly executing a suicide squeeze bunt in the seventh inning to give the Nationals what was then a three-run lead.

“I think that’s the style of baseball you’re going to become accustomed to seeing us play,” said right fielder Jayson Werth, who was 3-for-4 with two doubles and a walk as he and Ryan Zimmerman combined to go 5-for-7 from the two and three spots in the lineup.

As for the bunt, which Zimmerman scored from third on, Ankiel took two pitches from Braves left-hander George Sherrill before dropping down a 76-mph slider and watching Zimmerman cruise home to give the Nationals what was then a 5-2 lead.

“I got (the sign) before the pitch and once you get it, I think the guessing game’s all in what he’s going to throw because you really have no idea,” Ankiel said. “You just try to get it down and luckily, I did.”

Ankiel was greeted by high fives and handshakes as he made his way back to the dugout after the bunt, and he admitted the suicide squeeze — the first he could ever remember laying down — was fun, but the home run was still better.

“There’s nothing better in the world for me as a baseball player (than hitting a home run),” he said. “But any time you can help the team win and execute a squeeze like that, helps too.”

And while Ankiel’s performance, which shows up in the box score as a 1-for-3 effort with a run scored and three RBI, was the most tangibly productive, to say that it was what won the game for the Nationals would be incorrect.

It would be overlooking five solid innings from starter John Lannan, a performance delayed by violent rain storms both at the start and for 55 minutes in the fourth inning, as well as a potentially game-saving five outs from Tyler Clippard after the Nationals’ bullpen had begun to bleed, and left-hander Sean Burnett being trusted to pick up the fifth save of his career as the Nationals continue their search for a closer.

It was also the reward the Nationals both wanted and needed after getting shutout on Opening Day despite playing a game that, on many days, would have qualified them for a victory — and more proof that, while their so-called saviors Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper still remain months and possibly years away from making an impact at the major league level, they’re a much improved team fundamentally and it shows.

“The last 18 innings of baseball have been very much different from what kind of baseball club we’ve been over the last two years,” Clippard said. “It’s a lot better, it’s a lot cleaner. Good defense, moving the ball over, getting guys in when we need to.

“It’s good to get this win because we’ve played so well.”

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