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Nationals moving in right direction

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Sports,MLB,Nationals,Kevin Dunleavy

Nationals power past Tigers in 5-4 victory

A Dennis Green like pronouncement might be premature. But so far this May, the Washington Nationals are worthy of the words the former Arizona Cardinals coach who famously used after a loss to the Chicago Bears: "They are who we thought they were."

With Thursday afternoon's 5-4 victory over the Detroit Tigers, the Nats provided more evidence that they are evolving into the team many in baseball believed they were in March.

Timely hitting, strong work in the field and stellar work from the bullpen -- all supposed givens in the preseason but conspicuously absent in April -- were the elements of Thursday's win as Washington improved to 6-1 this month before an announced crowd of 28,742 at Nationals Park.

Bunching seven of their nine hits in the first two innings, playing errorless in the field and getting an inning each of scoreless relief from Ryan Mattheus, Drew Storen and Rafael Soriano, the Nats notched the kind of factory-produced victory that paved the way for the most regular-season wins (98) in the major leagues in 2012.

"That was our formula last year, timely hitting, good pitching," Nats manager Davey Johnson said. "The starting pitching's been much more consistent and the bullpen is starting to fall into different roles."

The clutch work of the Nats relievers allowed starter Dan Haren (4-3) to win his third straight start, this time without his best stuff. The right-hander allowed nine hits and a walk in six innings, pitching well with runners on base until pinch-hitter Matt Tuiasosopo delivered a three-run home run in the sixth inning.

"I'm frustrated obviously with the homer I gave up but really happy with the team coming away with a two-game sweep against a club of that caliber," Haren said. "I think we're headed in the right direction now."

Tuiasosopo's blast put pressure on a bullpen that struggled through much of the first month but has now worked 18 straight scoreless innings, dating back to the final game of April. In 15 innings in May, Nats relievers have surrendered 10 hits and just two walks.

Each of the Nats relievers surrendered one single each, but none of the runners got past first base. Storen, who entered with a 4.76 ERA, allowed a one-out hit to Alex Avila, but followed with a breaking-pitch strike three to Omar Infante, who was 3-for-3 against Haren.

After Miguel Cabrera hit a two-out single in the ninth, Soriano induced a long fly-out to center from Prince Fielder, then pulled his tucked shirt out from behind his belt, his go-to move after each of his 12 saves.

The work of the relievers has been the biggest difference as Washington (19-15) has thrived after a 13-14 April. The record in May has come against two division leaders and a Pittsburgh team with a winning record.

The Nats got all the runs they needed in the first two innings as Denard Span scored runs in each after setting the table with a double and a hit-by-pitch, Roger Bernadina reached base twice, Ian Desmond had an RBI single and Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche contributed back-to-back singles in both frames.

"Everyone in this room will tell you we didn't play great baseball at the beginning of the season -- defensively very sloppy, offensively, we were very inconsistent. Even the pitchers weren't that great," Zimmerman said. "We just gotta keep doing what we've been doing lately."

kdunleavy@washingtonexaminer.com

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