Nationals 5, Braves 4

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WASHINGTON (AP)—Plugging in parts as they go, the Washington Nationals are finding ways to win the close ones and stay right near the top of the NL East.

They did it again Tuesday night, coming back against the Atlanta Braves’ bullpen after starter Mike Hampton left with tightness in his pitching arm. Washington won 5-4 for its third straight victory—each by a single run.

Nick Johnson hit a go-ahead two-run double in the seventh inning, starter John Patterson came off the disabled list to pitch five innings of one-run ball, and a trio of relievers made a late lead hold up, if barely.

“We have to keep grinding,” said Johnson, one of five Nationals with at least two hits.

Cleanup hitter Jose Guillen went 3-for-4 with an RBI, and Vinny Castilla added two singles. They’re supposed to produce the big hits. But pinch-hitter Ryan Church came on to go 2-for-2 with a double, and reserve catcher Gary Bennett contributed two hits and drove in a run. Those are just the kind of everyone-chips-in performance needed on a team that has 10 players on the disabled list.

The Nationals rallied from a 3-0 deficit with two runs in the sixth and three in the seventh. Hampton shut out Washington for four innings, allowing five singles.

“It’s just not totally healthy and we’re just being more cautious than anything,” Hampton said. “We were just playing it safe instead of playing for one start.”

Patterson, who had been out because of back spasms, gave up a run in the first inning on a single, two walks, a wild pitch, a stolen base (Rafael Furcal’s NL-leading 20th) and an RBI groundout by Chipper Jones on a ball first baseman Johnson knocked down, preventing a likely extra-base hit.

Patterson then retired 13 straight batters before being lifted for a pinch-hitter in the fifth. Atlanta stretched its lead to 3-0 in the sixth off relievers C.J. Nitkowski and T.J. Tucker. But that was all the Braves would get until, trailing 5-3, Julio Franco hit a solo homer off closer Chad Cordero leading off the ninth.

Cordero then gave up consecutive singles. But after getting Brian Jordan to ground into a fielder’s choice, leaving men on first and third with one out, Cordero struck out pinch-hitter Brayan Pena and Furcal to record his 13th save.

“My heart was racing, man,” said Cordero, who pitched for a fourth straight day. “I just wish I didn’t put myself and the team in those kind of spots.”

Before he finished, Luis Ayala (3-3) threw a 1-2-3 seventh to earn the win, and Gary Majewski stretched his scoreless string to 16 innings in the eighth.

It’s that sort of strong bullpen work that gives the Nationals a chance in any tight game.

They’re 11-6 in one-run games; they trailed in 17 of their 27 wins.

“I don’t think the team is out of a ballgame as long as the pitching keeps us in our range of scoring,” Nationals manager Frank Robinson said. “We hit the top bar tonight when we scored five. But it was enough—it was enough to win.”

Washington had gone seven games in a row without scoring more than three runs, and Tuesday was just the second time in the team’s last 14 games that it has topped that number.

After going 4-15 against the Braves as the Montreal Expos in 2004, Washington is now 5-2 against Atlanta in 2005. And the Nationals are 1 1/2 games behind division leaders Atlanta and Florida, with their next five games at home against those clubs.

“We have a chance to step up,” Patterson said, “and kind of show these guys we’re here.”

Church led off the seventh with a single off loser Roman Colon (0-2) and moved to second when Brad Wilkerson’s possible double-play grounder was bobbled by second baseman Marcus Giles, who threw to first for the easy out.

Jamey Carroll hit a sinking liner to right field, and Jordan tried to make a diving catch but couldn’t come up with it. That brought out reliever Kevin Gryboski, whose second—and last—pitch of the night was hit by Guillen for an RBI single to tie the game at 3. With one out and runners at first and second, lefty John Foster came in to face Johnson, who delivered his two-run double.

It was the kind of clutch hitting the Braves haven’t been getting lately, as they’ve lost four of five games.

“When we get good pitches to hit, we’re not hitting them the way we should be,” Adam LaRoche said. “That’s all of us.”


Seven groups submitted bids Tuesday to try to buy the Nationals, a high-ranking baseball official who spoke on condition of anonymity told The Associated Press. Nine groups had paid $100,000 deposits required to enter the bidding process. The commissioner’s office will meet internally in the next week or two to go over the bids, the source said. Baseball’s other 29 teams bought the then-Expos in 2002 for $120 million, and the sale price now is expected to top $300 million. … Braves OF Raul Mondesi was designated for assignment, a move that could signal the end of his major league career. That move made room for Hampton to come off the DL.

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