Wednesday, June 13, 2007

BALTIMORE — A benefit of interleague play for the Washington Nationals is a road series just a short bus ride away every year to provide a temporary respite to the typical travel grind.

Another is the opportunity to play three games at cozy Camden Yards.

Ryan Church, Ryan Zimmerman and Brian Schneider smacked home runs — all off Baltimore starter Daniel Cabrera — as the Nationals earned a 7-4 victory before an announced crowd of 21,151.

Chad Cordero extricated himself from a one-out jam created by reliever Jesus Colome, inducing a double play grounder to earn his 100th career save and ninth of the season.

“Just to be able to do that and get to 100 saves is pretty cool,” said Cordero, who became the second-youngest player (behind Francisco Rodriguez) to reach the plateau.

Micah Bowie (3-2) pitched six solid innings in his longest start since 1999 as the Nationals (27-37) moved within a victory of winning their fourth straight road series.

Washington entered the series after winning two of three at Minnesota and got off to a promising start against the Orioles (29-35), who have fallen a season-worst six games under .500 and assumed sole possession of last place in the AL East for the first time since the second week of the season.

The Nationals’ place in their division is the same, but in the last month they have produced occasional offensive spurts to complement a patchwork pitching staff that has exceeded expectations in the face of injuries to four starting pitchers.

Such was the case again last night.

Rather than rely upon a single outburst, Washington applied steady pressure to Cabrera (5-7) throughout his stint. The Nationals took the lead permanently with a two-out rally in the fourth ignited by Ryan Langerhans’ infield single.

Cristian Guzman — moved into the leadoff role yesterday by manager Manny Acta in a flip-flop with the slumping Felipe Lopez— then walked, setting up Lopez to rip a two-run double down the line in left and snap an 0-for-19 skid.

Lopez also walked three times, drawing one with two outs just before Zimmerman’s home run in the third.

“We made a point to let Felipe know that was great, the at-bat that he had,” Acta said.

Those weren’t the only flurries for the Nationals, who chased Cabrera the next inning. Cabrera again set down the first two hitters, only to walk Church. Schneider then deposited the first pitch into the right field seats, ending Cabrera’s night and staking Washington to a 7-3 lead.

“They feel like if they hit a ball good it’s going to go out of the park, while at home you have pretty much have to get it all or hit the ball down the line,” Acta said. “They feel good on the road.

That was enough for Bowie, who encountered difficulty only once during a 92-pitch outing. He surrendered his only three hits in succession in the second inning, then didn’t allow another runner to get to second base as he made adjustments to his windup throughout the night to keep the Orioles off balance.

It was Bowie’s longest start since Sept. 18, 1999, and matched the lengthiest of his career. That he hadn’t made a major league start this century before last month and owns a commendable 4.01 ERA in five starts since being thrust into the rotation reflects how well Washington’s cobbled together rotation has held up.

“I feel like I’m keeping the team in the game and these guys are scoring a lot of runs and playing well,” Bowie said. “If I can keep us in the game and we can keep getting wins, I’m doing my job.”

The early innings featured a sequence of home runs, a reminder this series was not being played at RFK Stadium but rather 35 miles up the road. Church belted a shot to left-center off Cabrera in the second inning to give Washington an early lead.

It didn’t last long. Baltimore third baseman Melvin Mora fought off several pitches from Bowie in the second before hitting a three-run homer to right-center.

That was Bowie’s last glimpse of danger, and the Nationals improved to 5-0 in his starts. Washington is 18-12 since its grim 9-25 start and remains competitive despite a rotation that includes three journeymen (Bowie, Mike Bacsik and Jason Simontacchi), none of whom started a game since 2004 before this spring.

“To be truthful, if every other start was a quality one by those guys, I was going to be happy,” Acta said.

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