- Associated Press - Saturday, June 4, 2011

PHOENIX — Joe Saunders has had more than his share of early-inning trouble this season.

Unlike earlier in the year, he’s finding ways to wriggle out of them.

Saunders kept his string of solid starts going by escaping two jams in seven solid innings, combining on a four-hitter that lifted the Arizona Diamondbacks to a 2-0 win over the Washington Nationals on Saturday night.

“With his experience, he’s wiggled out of a lot of those situations and he did it again tonight,” Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson said. “We’d prefer to not have those situations early, try to correct that somehow, but Joe has been very good at that.”

He needed to be after Arizona didn’t put up much offense for the second straight night.

The Diamondbacks had just four hits, their only runs coming on an early triple by Stephen Drew and Xavier Nady’s late double off hard-luck Nationals starter Livan Hernandez (3-7).

Of course, they didn’t need much the way Saunders was pitching.

Shaking off a pair of two-on, one-out jams in the first three innings, he retired the final 14 batters he faced and held the Nationals to two hits to win his third straight start. He had plenty of juice to keep going when he was lifted for a pinch hitter in the seventh inning, but had nothing to worry about with David Hernandez and J.J. Putz in the bullpen.

Hernandez worked through a tough spot in the eighth and Putz bounced back from his first blown save by closing out the ninth for his 17th save, pushing Arizona back into the NL West lead with its 18th win in 22 games.

“It’s huge when they’re picking us on when we’re not getting a lot of offense,” Drew said after his 50th career triple. “At the same time, we’re getting timely hitting with the RBIs.”

Coming off a three-game winning streak, Washington has gone flat with the bat.

The Nationals were stymied by Diamondbacks rookie Josh Collmenter in a 4-0 loss Friday and followed that with second offensive clunker to spoil another quality start by Hernandez for their second back-to-back shutouts in a month.

“To me, it’s about the good pitching in general — we are not winning ballgames when we pitched so well,”Nationals manager Jim Riggleman said. “Everybody feels that on the club. Myself right on down to the coaches and player all feel terrible about the way have squandered some chances to win ball games when we pitch this well.”

Saunders had a lot to do with it.

The left-hander had a miserable start to the season, going 0-5 with a 5.02 ERA his first nine starts. He finally broke through with a win at Colorado on May 24 and was good enough in his last start, allowing four runs on seven hits in six innings in a 15-4 win over Florida.

Saunders found himself in a sticky spot right off the bat against Washington, facing first and third with one out. He worked out of it, striking out Michael Morse then getting Wilson Ramos on a lazy flyout with the bases loaded.

Saunders did it again in the third inning, this time by striking out Morse and getting Danny Espinosa on a nubber to the mound. He got into a nice groove after that, retiring the next 12 batters before being lifted for a pinch hitter in the bottom of the seventh with a 2-0 lead.

“I was tired of going out there and not contributing, keep the team in ball games and losing one-run games,” said Saunders, who’s lasted at least six innings in seven straight starts. “It was time for me to say, hey, turn this around.”

Hernandez was nearly as good.

Arizona finally got to him again in the seventh inning, though, when Nady followed Chris Young’s leadoff single with a run-scoring double to the corner in left.

Hernandez allowed two runs on four hits, but got one run or less support for the seventh time in 13 starts to remain winless in seven outings since April 28.

“Livan has been pitching his (backside) off and it is unfortunate the we couldn’t come through and support him as an offensive,” Nationals center fielder Rick Ankiel said. “But that’s the way baseball goes.”

Washington also was shut out in consecutive games by the Mets on May 18-19 in New York.

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