Armas hurls a one-hit gem

Armas hurls a one-hit gem

WASHINGTON -- All week, the Nationals have been talking about the play they needed to end their offensive struggles and get back on track in their pursuit to win the National League East.

Nobody could describe that play, whether it be a clutch home run or a lucky bounce, or say definitively when it would happen.

With the bases loaded and two outs in the first inning on Saturday, Carlos Baerga appeared to have extended the Nationals' string of untimely hitting with a flare that seemed destined for the glove of Astros center fielder Willy Taveras. But the liner to left-center field suddenly became what may turn out to be that enigmatic and previously unattainable play.

"I knew when I hit that ball that it was going to be farther," said Baerga. "I was jogging to first base when I saw [Taveras] come in. I started running and saw everybody running. I think it was like [the movie] Angels in the Outfield. God sent somebody over there for the ball to come down."

When the ball found a vacant patch of grass over the rookie outfielder's head, Brad Wilkerson, Jose Guillen and Preston Wilson rushed home as if they had never been there before, and the Nationals had all the scoring necessary for a 4-2 victory.

"That's what we've been missing," said manager Frank Robinson of Baerga's timely double. "It's hard to describe how badly we needed it, but we needed it very bad."

After Brian Schneider singled home Baerga to extend the lead to 4-0, the 42,680 relieved fans at RFK Stadium focused their attention on starter Tony Armas Jr.

Armas -- who left his start in the third inning on Monday because of dizziness and dehydration -- must have thought he was hallucinating when he witnessed the Nationals' biggest first-inning outburst of the season.

But the right-hander was full of fluids on a night when the weather was cooler than it had been all week. He recognized the early lead, and with confidence he attacked a team coming off a 14-1 win on Friday.

"I was just trying to keep the ball down and get my outs," said Armas. "That seemed like the first time I saw that many runs."

Armas held the Astros hitless through 5 1/3 innings before allowing a two-run homer to Lance Berkman on his 97th pitch of the night. He wound up allowing just that one hit in seven innings.

As Robinson predicted to the media before the game, Chad Cordero iced the win with his 34th save. After Cordero surrendered two singles to make the ninth inning interesting, Robinson knew, "the Nationals are back."

"We won it the way we won a lot of games this year, so that makes us feel a little bit more comfortable," said Robinson. "If we went out there and blew them out 10-0, I don't think it would have served as much purpose as much as this 4-2 game, because that's our type of game. If we can get back to that, we're going to win our share of games."

The starting pitching and bullpen were essential in the victory, but if it wasn't for that play in the first, Eminem's blaring rap in the home clubhouse would have been replaced by a post-game silence that has become far too familiar for the Nationals.

What made the play even more significant was the fact that the Nationals had caught another poor bounce earlier in the rally.

Guillen, who has recently complained about not being able to get the ball out of spacious RFK Stadium, did just that with a ground-rule double. Had the ball stayed in play, Wilkerson would have been able to score from first. But when the ball caromed into the bullpen -- and off the head of Sun-Woo Kim -- Wilkerson was stranded at third until Baerga drove him in.

"We were due for a break," said Wilkerson. "That's the way we've been winning baseball games."

It had been more than a month since the Nats scored four runs in an inning, and they hadn't tallied more than four in a game in the previous six days.

But all is not necessarily fixed. Robinson, who would seem to have spoken to Baerga's angels by his pregame prognostication of victory, also said on Saturday afternoon that it would take more than one key hit for the Nationals to escape their struggles.

The team won, 4-0, against Colorado on Tuesday, but that has been nearly forgotten thanks to the slump that began the next day.

So the Nats realize that it will take more than one win, even when that win came under atypical circumstances after a wakeup call the previous night.

"A loss doesn't turn it around," said the veteran Baerga. "Wins turn it around. The biggest win is going to be tomorrow. To come back with two games in a row ... We haven't done that in a while."

David Selig is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.