Tuesday, May 01, 2007

9 Wins and Counting -- Once again, the Nats won the first game on the road trip, beating the San Diego Padres. They're still on a pace to lose more than 100 games, but good signs abound. The pitcher who was supposed to be the teams' "ace," John Patterson, finally pitched a good game. He was touched for a home run by former National, Termel Sledge (Sledge actually hit the first home run for the Nationals, on Opening Day 2005, in Philly). That was all the Padres could manage in six innings against Patterson. They did load the bases in the sixth inning, but Patterson pitched out of the jam -- he got a weak fly ball out to short right field, and then got some defensive help, when Ryan Zimmerman cleanly fielded a first pitch smash by Khalil Greene. Patterson finally hit 90 on the radar gun, and shows signs of finally getting back his arm strength. The team, its fans and Patterson should all be encouraged by this start.

The big hit came from Kory Casto, who was back with the big club, after hitting the cover off the ball, during 10 games with AAA Columbus. With the Nats up 2-1, Casto hit an RBI double, after fouling off his attempt to lay down a sacrifice bunt. That brought home the Nats third, and decisive run. Although the Nats loaded the bases, after Casto's double, they were unable to add to their lead. Earlier, Ryan Church doubled, in the second inning, and scored the Nats' first run -- a rare instance of the Nats scoring in the first two innings. In the fourth inning, Church was hit by a pitch, and then stole second base, He scored on Austin Kearns RBI single.

The most impressive part of this win is that the Nats beat the Padres' ace, Jake Peavy. Patterson's effort, outpitching Peavy, was the fifth straight outstanding start by a Nationals' pitcher. Although they lost two of those games to the Mets, they were within one out of winning on Saturday night -- losing despite Jerome Williams' one-hit performance over seven innings. On Sunday, Jason Bergmann outpitched John Maine, but the Nats got beat by Carlos Beltran's solo shot. The Mets' pitchers were just good enough to shut out the Nats, who couldn't get the clutch hit they needed to score, despite several good chances.

As I've written repeatedly, the biggest question mark for the Nats, coming into this season, was always the starting rotation. This past week, it's been really good. If they do that week in and week out, the Nats' season will have been a success, regardless of their final record. This year is about building a foundation. If they know they have the pitchers, the Nats' management can go into the free agent market looking to beef up their lineup.

There's a long season ahead. The Nats still have the worst record in the National League, and they're still on pace to lose 100 games. Still, there are things to like about this team, and reasons to think they will only get better as the season goes along, especially if they can get Nick Johnson back before too long. Chad Cordero, who earned his third save, is showing signs of getting back on track, despite the Mets' two-out rally on Saturday night. The Nats' likely number one set-up man, Luis Ayala, is now pitching in rehab stints in the minors. Right now, things look pretty good for a team with only 9 wins against 17 losses.

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