NEW YORK -- Manager Jim Riggleman said before Tuesday's game against the Mets that the Nationals want to make a statement and show they are not a 100-loss team, like they were the previous two years.
They did just that, showing once again they are tough to deal with as they defeated the Mets, 3-2, at Citi Field.
Washington has won three consecutive games, improved its record to 18-14 and is all alone in second place in the National League East after going into the game in a tie with New York.
"We want to ... get a little respect around the league," Riggleman said. "You only do that by winning ballgames. Every game you win gets you a little closer to getting the respect that you deserve for all the hard work you put in. Our guys really work hard."
The Nationals showed why their losing ways may be behind them, especially without some of their best players on the field. For starters, the team won without closer Matt Capps and setup man Tyler Clippard, both of whom had the day off after being used often. They had to rely on relievers who have been mediocre, with the exception of left-hander Sean Burnett.
It helped that they received solid pitching from starter Luis Atilano, who was celebrating his 25th birthday. Atilano had the third strong outing of his young career, and it proved to be enough for his third win of the season.
At first it looked as though Atilano was going to have a long night. In the first inning, the Mets had the bases loaded with one out. It didn't help that Atilano had a hard time gripping the ball because of the cold weather, but he managed to get out of the inning by striking out David Wright and Ike Davis.
That marked the second time this season Atilano was able to get out of a bases-loaded jam. The first was against the Cubs in Wrigley Field. How does he do it?
"I just try to stay focused -- pitch-by-pitch. I try to get outs any way [I can], whether [or not] I strike out a guy," Atilano said. "I don't care if I get a ground ball or fly balls. I just want to get outs. I think that's why I've been pretty successful in that situation."
Atilano would go on to pitch 5 1/3 innings, allowing five hits, striking out a career-high five batters and walking two.
"He was real good," Riggleman said. "He got better as he got along. He really did a nice job for us. We wanted to get everything we could out of him because we knew we didn't have Capps and Clippard on the other end, so we just needed to go as far as we could with him. He gave us a chance, and we got it."
Atilano received run support in the third inning, when Adam Kennedy and Ryan Zimmerman hit back-to-back home runs off Mets starter John Maine.
After Atilano exited, the Nationals' bullpen gave up two runs over the final 3 2/3 innings. The Mets made it a 2-1 game in the bottom of the seventh inning, when Luis Castillo drove in Rod Barajas with a single to left off left-hander Doug Slaten.
Washington would add an insurance run off Pedro Feliciano in the eighth inning, when Ivan Rodriguez singled to right field to drive in pinch-runner Willy Taveras.
To close the game, Riggleman went with right-hander Miguel Batista, who didn't know he was serving in that role until the eighth inning.
Of all the relievers in the Nats' bullpen, Batista has the most experience. In 2005, he saved 31 games for the Blue Jays in 2005.
This particular outing, however, wasn't easy for him. With one out, Angel Pagan sent a four-seam fastball over the wall in right-center to make it a one-run game. After Castillo struck out, Alex Cora singled to center field to bring the go-ahead run to the plate, but Batista struck out Jason Bay to end the game.
"We all know we have to pitch in with Capps and Clippard overworked," Batista said. "It's part of the game. We needed to be ready for those types of situations."
Do the players feel they made a statement against the Mets? Did they show that they are no longer a last-place team?
Rodriguez said there is no time to think about the Mets or anybody else in the division. The Nationals have to worry about themselves.
"I don't know if we made a statement. We are not thinking about anybody," Rodriguez said. "We are thinking about our team. The chemistry is positive every single day, and that's our main focus. We have to keep it the way it is. Everybody is happy. Everybody is together as a ballclub."
Said Zimmerman: "It's early. We are very excited about how we have played. We know we have a long way to go, a lot of things to get better at. Is it better to be over .500 and winning? Yeah. We are excited about our team. But there are still 4 1/2 months left. It's a long way to go."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.