- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 20, 2011

PHILADELPHIA — The eyes of Philadelphia Phillies right fielder Hunter Pence were transfixed.

Not on the first base bag he was supposed to be running to, attempting to beat out an infield grounder, but on the barrel of his bat as it sailed into the seats above the Washington Nationals’ dugout Tuesday.

When Tommy Milone is pitching well, a cracked bat is a common occurrence. When he’s on, like he was for six scoreless innings in the Nationals’ 4-3, 10-inning win in the first game of the doubleheader, he’s sawing them in half.

Ross Detwiler was equally dominating in the nightcap, outdueling Cliff Lee by scattering three hits over 7 1/3 innings in a 3-0 victory. He walked one and struck out three.

“[Milone] doesn’t have overpowering stuff,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, the hero of Game 1 with a pinch-hit RBI single in the 10th inning. “But he knows how to use his stuff to make it overpowering.”

Milone left with the lead after Roger Bernadina’s three-run homer into the upper deck in right in the seventh, but his outing turned into a no-decision when Raul Ibanez did precisely the same thing a half-inning later.

In the 10th, manager Davey Johnson turned to Zimmerman, whose RBI single sealed the Nationals’ first five-game road winning streak since 2005.

But it was not Zimmerman’s clutch hit that everyone wanted to talk about after the game. That honor went to the left-handed Milone, who continues to interject himself into the conversation for the Nationals’ 2012 rotation.

“Tommy was perfect,” Johnson said. “It puts him in competition for starting on this ballclub. We need more pitchers like him if we’re going to compete against Atlanta and Philadelphia. I haven’t seen anything that would put him out of the mix yet. He’s been outstanding. … His poise has been off the charts.”

As Milone’s comfort level has improved, so, too, has his performance. In his first start, he was strong the first time through the lineup but faltered on the second turn. In the next, it was a similar script. It was an issue Milone was conscious of and made an effort to correct - realizing he’d need to use his secondary pitches more.

Milone is stingy with walks - he allowed just 16 in the minors this year compared with 155 strikeouts - and has walked just three in four major league starts. But teams were approaching him aggressively. He had to learn not to be afraid to throw balls out of the zone and coax hitters to offer at them.

“I’m not trying to throw everything for a strike,” he said. “I’m making it look like a strike and leaving the zone with two strikes.”

Against the New York Mets last week he was, as Johnson said, “magnificent.”

He did that one better Tuesday against the National League East champions with the longest and most dominant start of his career. In six innings he threw 96 pitches (not one over 90 mph), surrendered four hits, struck out two and watched just five balls reach the outfield - three of which were outs.

“It was actually pretty easy,” Milone said. “It didn’t seem like I had to try too hard. … The more I go out there, the more comfortable I feel. The pitches were coming out and every time I tried to hit my spot, I was hitting it. It just felt like it was a lot easier.

• Amanda Comak can be reached at acomak@washingtontimes.com.

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