WASHINGTON (AP)—Frank Robinson’s stomach was churning again: He’s still not used to managing a team that doesn’t show up until the game is half over, a team that consistently comes from behind to win one-run games.
The star this time, as it has been a lot lately, was quiet first baseman Nick Johnson, who had the savvy to anticipate a first-pitch fastball from Barry Zito and deposit it neatly beyond the fence in right-center field. Johnson’s home run in the sixth inning Tuesday night led the first-place Washington Nationals to their fifth straight victory, 2-1 over the Oakland Athletics.
“I’ve never seen a ballclub like this before,” Robinson said. “Each night, it just seems to be the same script. ‘OK, boys, it’s the sixth inning. Let’s wake up. Let’s go to work.’ Or maybe they just feel like they don’t want to put too much effort out there and do too much work when they can get it done in half a ball game.
“I don’t know what it is, and I’m not going to tamper with it. We’re having success, so we’ll leave it alone, but it’s certainly not easy on the stomach.”
The Nationals have won eight of nine and moved to a season-high six games above .500. They have overcome deficits in their last nine wins and have come from behind for 22 of 32 victories this season.
Tony Armas (2-3) threw six innings and became just the second starter in the eight-game homestand to get a decision, another sign of the team’s knack for waiting late to settle a game.
Johnson went 2-for-3 with a walk, raising his average on the homestand to .560 (14-for-25), and the first baseman’s nifty scoop of a one-hop throw completed a double play to end a threat in the eighth. The reigning NL co-player of the week is a major reason why the Nationals are atop the NL East.
“Right now he’s in a very good groove, and I hope I don’t jinx him,” Robinson said.
Johnson did extensive work in the offseason to eliminate extra movement in his swing, and it’s paid off with a .338 average. He has reached base safely in 55 of 57 games. Most importantly for Tuesday’s game, he sensed that curveball-meister Zito would throw one down the middle after walking Jose Guillen on four straight pitches.
“He threw four balls, and I was looking for a pitch in the zone to get a swing at it,” Johnson said. “And he threw a fastball.”
Said Zito: “I shouldn’t have given him the heater right there. In retrospect, he’s going to come out swinging right there, the game is on the line.”
Armas got the win with six innings of four-hit ball, allowing a first-inning run and working through long at-bats of endless foul balls on a sultry night when the announced temperature at game time was 91 degrees. Armas walked three, struck out two and didn’t take long to amass 110 pitches, but he quieted the A’s bats that had come alive during Oakland’s just completed 6-1 homestand.
The A’s are still struggling away from home, however. The loss was their ninth straight on the road, their longest road losing streak since they dropped 11 from Sept. 5-Oct. 1, 1995.
Zito (2-7) dropped to 0-5 on the road, but he was even better than Armas through five innings. He was working on a shutout until the walk to Guillen and the homer by Johnson. The 2002 Cy Young winner was plagued again by poor run support: The A’s have scored just one run in three of his last four starts.
“He’s pitched a lot better than his record indicates; 2-7 is not the way Barry has pitched,” Oakland manager Ken Macha said.
Nationals shortstop Cristian Guzman, batting .193 entering the game, had another awful day at the plate. He struck out with Johnson on second to end the fourth and fanned again with Vinny Castilla on third to end the sixth. Guzman was booed as he tossed his helmet, the low point in an 0-for-3 performance.
The A’s got two baserunners with one out in the eighth, the only two batters to face left-handed reliever C.J. Nitkowski. Eric Chavez singled, and Hatteburg walked, but Luis Ayala came on to get Bobby Crosby to ground into a 6-4-3 double play.
Chad Cordero pitched the ninth for his 16th save, but he made things interesting by allowing a pair of two-out singles. … Zito got the first hit of his six-year major league career when he sliced a single to left with one out in the fifth inning. Zito had been 0-for-23 lifetime with 13 strikeouts. … Johnson’s home run was the expected quota in a game between two teams that have struggled to get the ball out of the ballpark. Oakland’s 35 homers are the fewest in the majors, while Washington’s 41 sits at the cellar of the NL. RFK has yielded a majors-low 31 homers. … Max Kennedy, son of former attorney general and RFK Stadium namesake Robert F. Kennedy, threw out the ceremonial first pitch.