Villarreal wins first start in three years; Braves blank Nats

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Oscar Villarreal's first major-league start in more than three years was so good, he earned another one.

Pressed into filling an open spot in Atlanta's rotation, Villarreal threw five innings of one-hit ball, Edgar Renteria
stopped a long hitless skid with three singles and two RBI and the Braves beat the Washington Nationals 5-0 on Thursday.

"I had very good control," said Villarreal (9-1), the 12th starter used by the Braves in 2006. "My pitches were down. Everything I threw was down for five innings."

He gave up a second-inning single to Austin Kearns and a fifth-inning walk to Ryan Church -- and retired his other 15 hitters. He struck out four.

"He's kind of got a little deception," Kearns said. "He changes arm angles a little bit. He's coming at you with sinkers and sliders, and we just couldn't get anything going."

Not against the Braves' bullpen, either, as three relievers finished off the four-hitter for Atlanta's first shutout since May 1. Only one Nationals batter reached second base: Church doubled in the seventh.

Of Villarreal's 162 appearances in his major-league career, 160 came in relief. The other starting assignment was for Arizona on April 8, 2003.

So which does he prefer?

"I like both," he said. "I like to pitch -- and I like my team to win."

Manager Bobby Cox called Villarreal's performance Thursday "pretty darn impressive" and, asked whether the pitcher will stay in the rotation, said: "For a little while longer, you bet."

Atlanta won also thanks to some key two-out hits and two tight plays at the plate in which Braves runners tested left fielder Alfonso Soriano's arm.

The first run came on Brian McCann's homer leading off the second against Jason Bergmann (0-1), who was making his second start in a row since being converted from relieving in the minors. He allowed four runs in six innings.

In the fifth, Matt Diaz doubled and advanced on a wild pitch, and Ryan Langerhans walked -- one of four free passes for Atlanta's No. 8 hitter -- and took second on Villarreal's sacrifice. Marcus Giles singled, and Diaz scored easily. Langerhans crossed the plate as catcher Brian Schneider couldn't get a handle on Soriano's throw.

Renteria then singled to left, and Soriano's throw beat Giles home, but plate umpire Ed Rapuano ruled that Giles slid around the tag. Nationals manager Frank Robinson came out for an extended, animated argument with Rapuano. The call stood.

"I thought we had him," Bergmann said.

Said Schneider: "When you look at the replay, his front leg never comes down, and I get his back leg."

And Giles' take?

"It's just a bang-bang play," he said. "The point is, the umpire called me safe, so I was safe."

The hit ended Renteria's drought of 24 at-bats without a hit, matching the longest slump of his career, from Sept. 7-15, 2004. Atlanta tacked on a run in the seventh on Renteria's second straight run-scoring hit.

And that was plenty of offense on this afternoon, thanks to Villarreal. A day earlier, when past NL Cy Young Award winner John Smoltz started for Atlanta, the Nationals scored nine runs. This time, zero.

"We've had some injuries in our starting rotation, and Oscar stepped up," Giles said. "He had his things going all day. He had a command of all pitches, and I think he had the other hitters thinking a lot."

Game notes
Braves center fielder Andruw Jones was out of the starting lineup for a third straight game with a balky left knee. Cox said he expects Jones to be back in the lineup Friday at Florida. ... After the game, the Nationals put left-hander Micah Bowie on the 15-day disabled list, retroactive to Aug. 10, with a strained upper back muscle.
Washington will probably replace him on the roster Friday with second baseman Jose Vidro (DL, left hamstring), assuming he made it through a final rehab appearance at Double-A Harrisburg on Thursday night OK.