Nationals improve to 8-0 when starter goes at least five innings

WASHINGTON -- These were the sorts of games the Washington Nationals tended to lose in 2009.

OK, yes, the Nationals tended to lose pretty much every sort of game in recent times, leading the majors with more than 100 losses each of the past two seasons. Still, this particular brand of contest -- a close game, and one in which Washington trailed early -- always gave the team trouble.

There was more to make for a dreary night Wednesday, too, including the smallest crowd in Nationals Park's brief history, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman's right hamstring injury that forced him out in the seventh inning, the mist that kept the tarp on the field until an hour before the first pitch.

Still, Wil Nieves drove in the go-ahead run with a double, Ivan Rodriguez added a sacrifice fly and the Nationals came back to beat the Colorado Rockies 6-4, staying undefeated when their starting pitcher goes at least five innings.

"Once you win a few of those games, you get a confidence in yourself, and you really believe that you can do it. That's a lot of it," said Josh Willingham, who had two hits and scored the go-ahead run after singling to lead off the eighth against Rafael Betancourt (0-1).

"We lost some leads late last year a lot of times and wasn't able to scratch a couple runs late to get a win every now and then," Willingham said. "We're able to do it this year so far, and that's why our record's better."

It certainly is. Washington is 8-7, which might not mean much to many teams, but remember: The Nationals haven't had a winning record so "late" in a season since being 81-80 on Oct. 1, 2005.

"It's 15 games into the season, is all it is," manager Jim Riggleman said, "but we are where we are, and we know we haven't hit our stride."

Consider, too, that the Nationals went 11-22 in games decided by two runs or fewer last season. And this season? They're now 5-0 in those close contests.

And one more: The Nationals went 27-66 when they trailed in 2009. They fell behind 3-0 on Wednesday, thanks in part to Brad Hawpe's solo shot off John Lannan in the third inning.

"It always seemed tonight like we were one hit away from opening the game up and couldn't get it," Rockies manager Jim Tracy said.

The Nationals scored four runs in the bottom half of the third, thanks to Adam Dunn's two-run double past sprawling first baseman Jason Giambi, Willingham's RBI single and a fielding error on Clint Barmes at second base that allowed Willingham to score.

Even though Lannan allowed 11 hits and four runs in six innings, it was enough to keep his team in the game -- and the Nationals are 8-0 when their starter goes at least five, 0-7 when he doesn't. Reliever Tyler Clippard (3-0) struck out three in two scoreless innings, and closer Matt Capps used three strikeouts in the ninth to earn his seventh save in seven chances.

"They shut the door," Willingham said.

The game was tied entering the eighth, when Betancourt replaced Jason Hammel and promptly gave up Willingham's single. After an intentional walk, Nieves lined a double to left-center.

"I don't think I pitched today, you know? The only thing I did was throw the ball to the plate, that's it. It's very embarrassing for me to go out there and do that," Betancourt said. "I think every pitch was middle of the plate, and when you do that, something bad is going to happen."

Rodriguez then came up as a pinch-hitter and padded the lead before an announced crowd of 11,191, a tad tinier than the previous-low 11,623 who showed up Monday.

Many might have stayed away because of the miserable weather. Others might have wanted to watch on TV as the Washington Capitals played at the Montreal Canadiens in an NHL playoff game.

Perhaps word has not spread yet that the Nationals are a far more competitive team than they have been of late.

"We're playing great baseball. That's why it's even more frustrating if you have to come out of the game or you don't get to be a part of it because we're having fun, we're playing great together, we're getting big hits, we're doing little things right," said Zimmerman, who wouldn't rule out being available to play Thursday. "It's a great team to be on right now."

Game notes
Rockies center fielder Carlos Gonzalez tied a career high with four hits, all singles. ... The Rockies wore black patches on their sleeves in memory of team president Keli McGregor, who died this week at age 48. ... The Nationals put right-hander Jason Marquis (0-3, 20.52 ERA) on the DL. They are expected to bring up right-hander Luis Atilano from Triple-A Syracuse to take Marquis' turn in the rotation Friday against the Los Angeles Dodgers.