Willingham clutch in Nats' victory

Willingham clutch in Nats' victory

PITTSBURGH -- Clutch hitting by Josh Willingham helped the Nationals defeat the Pirates, 5-3, at PNC Park on Sunday afternoon, as Washington (33-72) snapped its four-game losing streak.

Pirates left-hander Paul Maholm was cruising with a 2-1 lead until the seventh inning. After Ryan Zimmerman led off with a single, Willingham, batting cleanup because Adam Dunn had the day off, came to the plate and hit the ball over the left-field wall for a two-run homer. It was his 17th long ball of the season.

"Maholm had a good sinker going," Willingham said. "In my second at-bat, I think I got a good pitch to hit and kind of rolled over it to third base. I was talking to [hitting coach Rick Eckstein], and I was trying to stay through it a little bit more. Then I got another pretty good pitch to hit. I was able to hit it out."

Willingham has been in a good hitting groove for a while. In fact, since May 5, Willingham is hitting .332 with 16 home runs and 40 RBIs. Willingham believes it's one of the best stretches he's enjoyed in his career.

"I really can't explain it," Willingham explained. "I'm glad I'm in there every day. I'm just trying to simplify everything, get a pitch to hit and hit it. I don't try to think about it too much. A lot of times you get yourself in trouble when you think about it too much."

Health is another big reason Willingham is having a great year. When he was first introduced at a Washington news conference last November, the organization acknowledged Willingham was a risky pickup because of lower back problems.

"My back has been good," Willingham said. "I have to credit a lot of that to our training staff and our physical therapist back home. Liz [Wheeler] has helped me a lot. She has given me some exercises to do. ... I do it probably not every day. I probably do it four or five days a week."

Willingham wasn't the only one who was able to get a key hit in the seventh inning. Three batters later, Alberto Gonzalez doubled down the left-field line to drive in Ronnie Belliard and give Washington a 4-2 lead.

That run proved to be important because the Pirates made it a one-run game in the bottom of the seventh, when second baseman Delwyn Young hit a home run off Jorge Sosa, who was making his season debut.

Sosa continued to have problems in the inning as he gave up a single to Andy LaRoche, but the Nationals caught a break. With Ronny Cedeno at the plate, Sosa threw a ball in the dirt. Catcher Wil Nieves quickly pounced on it and picked off LaRoche at first. Television replays, however, showed that LaRoche got his hand back to the bag before Belliard applied the tag.

"I shouldn't have been in that position, anyway," LaRoche said. "I should've either taken second or just stay there. It was obviously a bad read by me. I was just hoping to get back in, and I felt like I was back in. It was just really frustrating because it was a big, big part of the game."

"Wil is one of the best at blocking the ball," said Nationals interim manager Jim Riggleman. "He had a couple of tough pitches to handle. The one he got a grip on, he got the guy at first. That was big. I thought Sosa threw the ball extremely well, but he is in a little trouble there. That play right there got us out of trouble. So, we are certainly happy with Wil's play."

But the Nationals made it a two-run game again in the top of the eighth when Willingham doubled to left field to drive in Zimmerman.

"He has been good just about all year," Riggleman said about Willingham. "He had a couple of huge hits for us today -- just like he did in Milwaukee [when he hit two grand slams in one game]."

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.