Nationals 4, Braves 3

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WASHINGTON (AP)—As if to emphasize the point, Washington Nationals manager Manny Acta referred to his club as “kids” not once but twice, and he and some of those players spoke Thursday about how much “learning” they’re doing.

No one associated with the last-place Nationals pretends that 2007 is about anything other than rebuilding with an eye to the future, and yet for one full week, the present’s been pretty good.

There were several things that went wrong during Washington’s 9-25 start: poor pitching, hitting and defense and injuries.

Now, plenty is going right lately for the Nationals, including a 4-3 comeback victory over the Atlanta Braves on Thursday.

“We’ve made a lot of progress, I think. There’s a lot of games left, but we keep preaching and teaching,” Acta said after his team won for the sixth time in seven games. “Things are starting to change and guys are starting to play the way we want them to play.”

Examples of changing fortunes were abound Thursday, when Washington won a second consecutive series after not winning any of its first 12.

Felipe Lopez returned from a rare day off by stopping an 0-for-13 skid with a single, double and go-ahead triple.

“He needed just to have a mental break,” Acta said. “It showed.”

Matt Chico (3-4) recovered from Chipper Jones’ two-run homer to the deepest part of the park to earn the victory. Chico, never above Double-A before this season, is the type of player Washington wants to develop now while thinking about 2008 and beyond.

He’s taking everything in, and when he followed Jones’ big shot by getting three groundouts, it showed that he is aware of a key lesson: “Once that guy’s out of the box, he’s done,” Chico said.

And one key play encapsulated the way Washington’s going.

In the bottom of the fifth, the bases were loaded with two outs and Atlanta was leading 3-1, when Austin Kearns hit a dribbler a few feet in front of the plate. Force at home, inning over, right?

Early in the season, “they probably would have picked it up or tagged the guy or something would have happened where he would have been out,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said.

Not these days. Chuck James ran off the mound and leaned over to try to scoop the ball and tag Lopez, who was charging home. But James dropped the ball and Lopez scored to make it 3-2.

“If I make that, it’s a different ballgame,” said James, who allowed three runs over 5 1-3 innings. “I felt like I kind of rushed myself a little bit.”

Kearns’ take?

“You take ‘em any way you can get ‘em,” he said.

After Chico left, having allowed three runs in six innings, relievers Billy Traber, Jesus Colome, and Jon Rauch combined for three perfect innings, with Rauch earning his third save. Nationals relievers have allowed one run over their past 23 2-3 innings.

“They’ve been outstanding,” Jones said.

There were other contributors for Washington. In the sixth, rookie Jesus Flores led off with a double, was bunted to third, and scored on a single by pinch-hitter Dmitri Young—out of the lineup with a left Achilles’ tendon injury—off reliever Chad Paronto (2-1).

Up next was Lopez, who rested Wednesday after going hitless for three consecutive games. He tripled to left-center off Paronto to cap the comeback.

“We don’t give up. That’s basically it,” Lopez said. “We’re learning how to do the little things to win.”

For all the good vibes flowing through the home clubhouse, there was a slightly different take on the proceedings down the hallway.

“It was all us. It had nothing to do with them,” said Jones, whose 11th homer sailed over the 410-foot mark in center field. “You pitch bad, you play bad defense, you don’t hit—you lose.”

Now the Braves, who’ve dropped four of five games to fall behind the New York Mets in the NL East, travel to face the Boston Red Sox.

“It’s a good time to start playing better. Whenever we’ve needed to up our level of play, we’ve been able to do that,” Jones said. “Unfortunately, the fact that we lower our level of play against certain teams worries me.”

Notes

The Nationals are 14-14 against NL East opponents—and 1-12 against everyone else. … Needing a homer to complete the cycle in the eighth, Lopez was walked—drawing boos.

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