- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 12, 2012

CINCINNATI — As he was reading the newspaper Friday morning, Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson glanced at the baseball matchups for the night that were printed. He noticed that the line for his team’s game against the Cincinnati Reds was set at 7.5.

“I’m thinking, ‘What does that mean?’” Johnson said Friday afternoon. “They’re getting five?”

The manager’s joke was aimed at his anemic offense that seems to have to scratch for every run and has a pitching staff that rarely falters. They’re missing two of their biggest right-handed hitters. They were still waiting for players like second baseman Danny Espinosa and outfielder Roger Bernadina to get things going. They’ve played an MLB-leading 15 one-run games. Four runs, Johnson quipped, seemed like “a bonanza.”

After the Nationals’ 7-3 victory over the Cincinnati Reds, the manager might have to come up with a new adjective. The Nationals offense, led conveniently by homers from Espinosa and Bernadina, awoke against Reds starter Mike Leake, tagging him for three runs in the first inning — matching their total in that frame for the entire season — and added on through the fourth.

“Everybody’s slowly getting in gear,” Johnson said. “Little successes build confidence and it makes it easier. You don’t put so much pressure on yourself. That’s what we need to have happen and that’s what’s happening.”

Ryan Zimmerman had three hits, Adam LaRoche two more, with two RBI. Ian Desmond was 2-for-5 and scored two runs. Bryce Harper was the only Nationals position player to finish the night hitless, going 0-for-5 with three strikeouts. He also came away needing 10 stitches for a welt above his left eye after slamming his bat in frustration against the dugout wall and having it bounce back at him.

It was, however, the contributions of Espinosa and Bernadina that were the most necessary for the Nationals.

Bernadina battled Leake for 10 pitches in the first inning, finally smacking the 10th into the stands in right center field for his second homer in as many days, and quickly following Desmond around the bases. He also had an RBI single in the second. Espinosa wouldn’t topple the Reds’ scuffling starter until the third inning, sending his first pitch so soundly into the seats for a two-run homer that right fielder Jay Bruce didn’t even turn to watch it go.

In the last two games, Espinosa is 2-for-8, Bernadina 3-for-9. The numbers aren’t eye-popping, but they’re progress.

“It’s definitely good to see a little bit of result,” Espinosa said. “It helps. [Thursday] and [Friday] I felt good. I was kind of searching for it a little bit, but I definitely felt better the last two days. I just have an idea of what they’re going to do and when I get a pitch in the zone that I feel like I can handle, I’m going to take a shot swinging the bat.”

The offensive explosion allowed for the Nationals to weather some tense innings. Gio Gonzalez, who was superb through the game’s first three frames, striking out six straight batters at one point, struggled some in the fourth and labored until he finished the fifth inning with 115 pitches, but only two runs allowed and nine strikeouts.

The Reds made it interesting, loading the bases in the fifth and seventh innings and getting the leadoff man on in the ninth but, for once, the Nationals got to watch as another team’s offense squandered opportunities as their cushion stood.

“We scored one every inning for the first four,” Johnson said. “I like that.”

“We should have kept on going,” he added, before pausing and allowing a smile to cross his face. “One step at a time.”

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