Bullpen lifts Nationals over slumping Braves

BY foxsports • April 22, 2009

Everyone agreed what the pitch should be.

Closer Joel Hanrahan, catcher Jose Flores and pitching coach Randy St. Claire were of one mind: The Washington Nationals would finally secure their first winning streak of 2009 by getting the final out with a first-pitch slider to Atlanta's Yunel Escobar.

So what did Hanrahan do? He threw a fastball. And yet, because right now - well, for the past two nights, anyway - things are going Washington's way, and more specifically its bullpen's way, Escobar swung and smacked the ball right to the second baseman for a simple groundout. Game over, and the Nationals beat the Braves 4-3 Tuesday night for their second consecutive victory.

"Flores said he didn't know what he was going to do if the guy didn't hit the ball, because it probably was going to hit him in the throat. But (Escobar) put the ball in play, and he got the out," Washington manager Manny Acta said. "Those are the kind of things that, when you're meant to win, it happens."

After opening the season 0-7, then dropping to 1-10, Washington is 3-10. Atlanta is headed in the opposite direction, having lost five of its past six games.

"Anytime you lose like that, it's frustrating," Atlanta manager Bobby Cox said. "We didn't play a real clean game tonight."

Played following a 61-minute rain delay, this game was filled with all sorts of miscues: three errors, other fielding misadventures, a few running mistakes, failed sacrifice bunt attempts and more.

Shairon Martis (2-0) went six innings and gave up three runs - two earned. Then came the procession of Nationals relievers, providing three scoreless innings for the second day in a row.

Mike Hinckley went 1 2-3 innings, Julian Tavarez got one out, and Hanrahan had an adventurous ninth. But after a walk and double put two runners on with none out, Hanrahan got pinch-hitter Greg Norton on a comebacker, Kelly Johnson on a flyball to center, and - after St. Claire visited the mound to lay out a plan that would soon be abandoned - Escobar.

"I kind of made the fire for myself and was fortunate to get out of it," said Hanrahan, who entered this season with nine career saves.

He has converted his last two save chances after blowing his first two of the season.

"We need him," Flores said. "I think he was putting a little bit of pressure on himself. But we can see that he's trusting himself again."

The Nationals gave away ninth-inning leads Friday, Saturday and Sunday in losses to the Florida Marlins, precipitating a revamping of Washington's relief corps.

"Especially with happened over the weekend," Hanrahan said, "another one of those, and who knows what would have happened?"

Hinckley, Tavarez and Hanrahan were not part of the series of roster moves. Clearly, though, they heard the team's message.

"Oh, yeah. It's either you get the job done or they're going to go another route," Hinckley said. "And I'm thankful to be here."

Martis worked his way in and out of trouble, but he only allowed runs in the first - three of them, thanks in part to two walks. After that, though, the Braves wouldn't score again.

The Nationals eventually got to Atlanta starter Kenshin Kawakami (1-2). Flores' RBI double made it 3-1 in the second, and Kawakami didn't record an out in the sixth.

Adam Dunn led off with his fourth homer. Elijah Dukes reached on third baseman Chipper Jones' fielding error, and Austin Kearns followed with a sinking liner that skipped past left fielder Matt Diaz for an RBI triple that tied things 3-all.

"In my career, I think I lost four balls in the lights - and this year I've already lost three," Diaz said.

Jeff Bennett entered and got two outs, before giving up the go-ahead run on pinch-hitter Josh Willingham's single to left.

"It was big," Willingham said. "Pinch hitting's hard. It's something I'm getting used to the more that I do it."

The same could be said about the Nationals and winning.

After this victory, music was blaring over the speakers in the clubhouse ceiling - Green Day, Jay-Z, Kanye West.

And Acta was thinking about how close his team could be to .500.

"I'm not a big 'What if?' guy, but you can't help it to think that we blew three games over the weekend," Acta said. "This could be a six-game winning streak right now."


LHP Joe Beimel is the seventh Nationals player to go on the DL. "I don't believe in negative stuff," Acta said, "but I was wondering if somebody buried a Red Cross jersey here before they built this stadium because it's kind of, I don't know, weird."