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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Nats Walk High Wire, Beat L.A. 2-1

Washington -- The Washington Nationals newly-appointed closer, Joel Hanrahan, had a rare one-run lead to protect in the ninth inning Tuesday night against the Los Angeles Dodgers. And though he struggled with his control and put two runners on base with only one out, he managed to wiggle free of his self-induced predicament to record the final two outs without incident to hold on to that precarious lead, earn his fifth save of the season, and deliver a victory for the home crowd, the first win at home for the Nationals in 23 days. The 2-1 win was shared with 26,110 faithful at Nationals Park.

Hanrahan was throwing gas all inning, but had very little control over where the ball would end up. His fastball routinely touched 97 MPH, and a closer with a heater like that can get away with a few things on occasion. Luckily for the Nats, this was one of those occasions. Hanrahan got SS Nomar Garicaparra to ground to third to start the inning, but gave up a single to 3B Casey Blake before walking pinch-hitter Mark Sweeney on five pitches to set up the dramatics. Despite running the count to three balls on each of the final two batters, Hanrahan managed to induce CF Matt Kemp into flying out to center and RF Andre Ethier to ground out to 3B Ryan Zimmerman, who had a very busy night himself, to end this contest.

The Nats really had little business being in a game this close, much less with the lead after eight innings. Los Angeles seemed to keep the bases clogged all night long against starter Collin Balestar, who gave up five hits, two walks and two hit batters in five innings. But Balestar came up with the outs when he needed them most, and limited L.A. to one earned run among all those base runners. Balestar earned his third win of the season against six losses, and his ERA stood at 4.70 following the game.

Ryan Zimmerman deserves much of the credit for playing Houdini last night, as the third baseman turned four double plays, including two with the bases loaded to end rallies. But it may have been the one double-play that got away that was the most important play of the night. In the fifth, Balestar hit Garciaparra and Blake before walking pitcher Derek Lowe to load the bases --all with no outs. Lead-off hitter Kemp then smacked a sharp grounder down the third base line. In one motion, Zimmerman backhanded the ball, stepped on third and threw home for what should have been a double play.

However, catcher Jesus Flores thought Zimmerman missed the bag and the play at home was a force-out, so he tagged the base instead of Garciaparra, who scored without a play. Flores then fumbled the ball as he tried to transfer from glove to throwing hand, and he never got the throw off to first to try to get Kemp. But with one out and runners on first and second, Balestar got Ethier to fly out to center and 2B Jeff Kent to ground to third to end the threat.

"Any ball that comes at that guy [Zimmerman] is an out, so you don't have to worry about that," Balestar said. "I was able to throw a couple of two-seams in to get them to hit the ball over there, and that's where you want them to hit it."

Washington's hitters had difficulty with Dodgers veteran starter Derek Lowe all night long. He pitched an eight inning complete game, allowing just six hits and one walk, but made two mistakes and the Nats made him pay. In the second inning, Lowe (L, 10-11) left a cutter to high in the strike zone and CF Lastings Milledge got enough of it, sending it just over the left-center field fence into the flower garden that lines the Dodgers bullpen area. It was Milledge's 13th home run of the season, and sixth in August. He has raised his batting average and on-base percentage about 20 points over that time period as well, up to .260 and .325 respectively. The Nats played small-ball to get their second run. 2B Emilio Bonifacio dumped a single into shallow center field, took second on Balestar's successful sacrifice, advanced to third on a Willie Harris ground out, and scored on all-star SS Cristian Guzman's fisted liner to left center. Guzman had three of the Nats six hits, and raised his average back up to .296.

Los Angeles -- active at the trade deadline, adding Manny Ramirez and Casey Blake -- have lost five in a row, seven of eight, and are 0-5 midway through a ten-game road trip that could very well end their playoff chase. They are now two games below .500 and three games behind the Arizona Diamondback in the N.L. West. Only Arizona's three-game losing streak gives the Dodgers hope that the D-Backs aren't going to run away in the season's final four weeks.

The Nats wish they had a pennant chase to occupy themselves with, but must take solace that their efforts in the season's remaining 30 games could help shape how the National League seeds for the playoffs.

Wednesday, the Nats host the Dodgers in the second of the three-game series. Tim Redding (8-8, 4.54) faces 353-game winner Greg Maddux (6-10, 4.25) for L.A.

NATS NOTES: The win runs Washington's record to 47-85. They are 26 games behind division leading New York.

Before the game, the Nats placed struggling RF Austin Kearns on the 15-day disabled list with a stress fracture in his left foot. The injury was believed to have occurred August 3, and Kearns is expected to miss two-to-four weeks.

Following the game, the team announced that they reinstated OF Elijah Dukes from the DL. Dukes missed the last 19 games with a right calf strain. He went 1-for-11 with a solo home run and three walks in six games during his rehab assignment with Triple-A Columbus. The 24-year-old is batting .264 with nine doubles, two triples, six home runs and 23 RBI in 54 games with the Nationals. He owns a .364 on-base percentage and has recorded 10 stolen bases in 11 attempts. He has missed a combined 72 games during three DL stints this season.

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