Nats win with four-run outbreak in fifth
Church's three-run double caps off comeback from early deficit
WASHINGTON -- Where would the Nationals be without their bullpen? From the first day of Spring Training, everyone from manager Manny Acta to general manager Jim Bowden said the relievers were the strength of the club. It was proven on Wednesday night as the Nationals defeated the Braves, 6-4, in front of 20,329 fans at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium.
The Nationals have won five out of their last six games and improved their record to 14-26.
Long reliever Levale Speigner started the game after right-hander Shawn Hill was placed on the disabled list with left shoulder and right elbow problems. Speigner struggled, lasting just four innings while giving up four runs on eight hits. In fact, when Speigner left the game, the Nationals were down, 4-2.
But in came the bullpen, starting with left-hander Billy Traber, who arrived at the stadium right at game time. His contract was purchased from Triple-A Columbus and his flight to Washington was delayed.
Traber held the Braves scoreless in his one inning on the mound. Acta would use five more relievers -- Ray King, Winston Abreu, Saul Rivera, Chad Cordero and Jon Rauch -- who would combine to pitch five innings and give up just two hits. Even more amazing is that Washington's bullpen has a 3.75 ERA for the season.
"They have been pretty solid," Acta said. "Coming out of Spring Training, we knew we had a pretty solid bullpen. They are the reason we have 14 wins."
King said that Wednesday's game is an example of how Acta can easily match up relievers against the Braves' hitters.
"It's a situation where guys want to make a name for themselves," King said. "We have guys that can throw strikes. The key to the bullpen is limiting walks and putting the ball in play. When you have confidence, that is a dangerous weapon to have on our side."
The Nationals have been even better with Rauch as their closer, but Acta said that Cordero will get his job back on Friday. Cordero had missed a week of action after being placed on the bereavement list, and when Cordero returned to the club on Monday, Acta wanted to start the right-hander slowly by putting him in middle relief.
"It's nice to see that Rauch could close games, and it's nice to see that I could go to him," Acta said. "That being said, what you do in [three-plus years], I don't forget in four outings. After a day off tomorrow, Cordero is our closer."
Traber ended up being the winning pitcher when Washington scored four runs in the bottom of the fifth, thanks to an error by the Braves and clutch hitting by Nationals left fielder Ryan Church.
The Nationals had runners on first and second with one out and starter Kyle Davies on the mound. Cristian Guzman hit a perfect double-play ball to second baseman Kelly Johnson, but Johnson booted the ball, loading the bases.
Ronnie Belliard made it a one-run game when he hit into a force play at second base, but Ryan Langerhans scored on the play.
After Ryan Zimmerman walked to reload the bases, Church took a hanging curveball and drove in three runs with a double to right-center field. Church has six RBIs since being inserted into the cleanup spot. Entering the game, he was 11-for-47 (.234) with three RBIs.
"Finally, I came through with the bases loaded," Church said. "Anytime you come up with the bases loaded, you want to come through in that situation. It was good to put us ahead and it ended up winning the ballgame."
Church is starting to feel that he is becoming a true cleanup hitter and he knows that he can't be looking for just the fastball.
"I've struggled of late because I'm trying to get accustomed to that four-hole," he said. "I'm not accustomed to teams paying attention to me. Being sandwiched in between Zimmerman and [Austin] Kearns is an awesome feeling. For me, it's knowing the situations and knowing that the pitchers are not going to give in.
"If anything, they are going to throw me some offspeed pitches. If it's a fastball, it's going to be away. I'm gradually started to pick up on some things. The biggest thing is to stay back and drive some offspeed stuff."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.