- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 23, 2011

When the final three pitches were thrown and Wilson Ramos squeezed each called strike from Drew Storen to Chone Figgins, there was no way to overstate what the Washington Nationals had just done.

Their 2-1 victory over the Seattle Mariners on Wednesday night secured their fourth straight series win, their 10th victory in the past 11 games and put them at a plateau unheard of for the past five years.

For the first time since the team’s inaugural season in D.C., Washington is .500 after the calendar has turned to summer.

“We had to do a lot to get back to where we’re at,” rookie second baseman Danny Espinosa said of the Nationals improving to 37-37. “It was just a couple weeks ago that we were eight, nine under.

“I think people are going to pay more attention to us. Coming back from where we were, people probably just thought, another Nationals year they’re going to flop, whatever. This team’s not like that. We’re not going to accept losing, and it’s obvious.”

In reality, what the Nationals did in edging Erik Bedard and the Mariners was reach a mark that, as Ryan Zimmerman put it, means “nothing.”

“The past two weeks matter,” the third baseman said. “But a ton of a teams are .500 in June all the time. I think the way we were down a little bit and we battled back, it’s a nice two-week span. You can’t get too caught up in that because there’s still however many months left. We know that we have to continue to keep playing like this if we want to turn this into anything special.”

They have yet to separate themselves from their peers. They wake up Thursday morning with a chance for their second sweep of the homestand but are still just one of 17 teams that are .500 or better and remain 9½ games behind the Philadelphia Phillies in the National League East.

What they have done is put distance between this version of the Nationals and the futility of their organization’s past.

“It’s a good place to be right now,” said Wednesday night’s winner, left-hander John Lannan. “I mean, I’ve never been on a team that’s this far into the season and been .500. I like it, but it’s time to move past that and set new goals and go above it.

“A lot of people doubt our ability, and they have the last couple years. Our goal is to prove a lot of people wrong, and that’s what we’re going to do. That’s always the goal … We’ve just got to take the next step. I think Jayson Werth saw it coming over here. I think a lot of guys know it’s there. It’s just a matter of going out there and doing it now.”

The Nationals had no better spokesman for that type of perseverance Wednesday night than Lannan (5-5). One day after the one-year anniversary of his demotion to Double-A, Lannan continued a stretch of pitching unparallelled in his career with the sixth consecutive start where he’s allowed two earned runs or less.

On the brim of every hat the left-hander wears on the mound is a small, black ‘AA’, a reminder of how far he’s come. “I’ll never forget,” Lannan said. But if he needed another reminder of his career path since then, all he needs to do is look at the stats.

Flipping the switch between his 10th and 11th starts and focusing on his sinker has paid dividends. In his first 10 starts, Lannan had a 5.03 ERA and opponents were hitting at a .303 clip. In his past six, his ERA is 1.15 ERA and he’s allowed one or no runs in five of those starts.

He dueled with Bedard nearly pitch for pitch, though the Mariners‘ lefty outdid him in strikeouts (10-3). And the Nationals’ sixth win this month when they’ve scored just two runs was aided by 3 1/3 shutout innings from the bullpen. A first-inning RBI single by Espinosa and another by Jerry Hairston Jr. in the fourth to score Espinosa accounted for the Nationals’ offense.

“They’re just numbers, but at the end of a year, if a club is .500 or a couple games over, as opposed to a couple games under, it just has a different feel to it,” said Nationals manager Jim Riggleman. “But the reality of it is, we’re one game different than we were yesterday.”

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