Belliard, Langerhans team to lift Nats

Belliard, Langerhans team to lift Nats

ST. LOUIS -- On May 7, when everything was going wrong for the Nationals, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman told the media to be patient. He acknowledged there would be rough times this season because the team is in a rebuilding mode, that the good times might not come until 2008.

But the good times began for Washington more than two weeks ago, and they continued on Sunday afternoon as the Nationals defeated the Cardinals, 7-2, at Busch Stadium.

The Nats, who closed out their week-long road trip with a 5-2 record, have now won 12 out of their last 17 games to improve to 21-30.

Zimmerman acknowledged that the Nationals are in a tough division to gain significant ground, but he believes the team will continue to get better.

"It's a funny game," Zimmerman said. "Anything can happen. We have to play this well the rest of the way, because our division is so good."

The successful stretch has manager Manny Acta believing that this team can still finish the season over .500.

"Only time will tell, but everything is clicking right now," Acta said. "From Day 1, I didn't care what everybody said and predicted. I want to play over .500."

The primary reason things are clicking for Washington is the offense. Two weeks ago, it was one of the worst in baseball with a .227 team batting average. That mark has since risen to .240 entering Monday's action. On Sunday, the Nationals gave an example of how good it has been lately.

A day after receiving a replica of his championship ring, shortstop Ronnie Belliard came off the bench and went 4-for-5 against his former team. His biggest hit came in the fifth inning with the game scoreless. Belliard hit Adam Wainwright's 0-1 pitch over the left-field wall for a two-run home run.

Belliard declined to talk about the damage he did against the team he helped win the World Series. Instead, he addressed the Nationals' great road trip.

"It was nice for the team," Belliard said. "We played well. We went to Cincinnati and won three out of four. We came here and won two out of three. Now, we are going back home and will try to do the same thing. It has nothing to do with [beating the Cardinals]. I have to do my job when I play. Manny Acta put me in the lineup. I got four hits out of it."

Washington scored its third run of the game in the eighth inning when Belliard scored on lefty Randy Flores' wild-pitch strikeout of Nook Logan.

Later in the inning, Acta showed how much confidence he has in outfielder Ryan Langerhans, who was filling in for Logan. Acta let the left-handed-hitting Langerhans hit against Flores, despite the fact that Langerhans was 1-for-14 against lefties entering the game. It paid off, as Langerhans sent a 2-2 pitch over the center-field wall for a grand slam.

"It was a big confidence boost, knowing that Manny felt comfortable with me in that situation," Langerhans said. "I have been seeing the ball a lot better recently. I feel that my swing is coming around, but I had a tough day against Wainwright. He threw some great pitches on me."

Left-hander Matt Chico, who started the game for the Nationals, pitched four shutout innings, but he left the game after a 61-minute rain delay.

It marked the second time this season that Chico had to leave the game because of the weather. The first came against the Marlins on May 12 at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium. In that game, Chico lasted 4 1/3 innings, giving up one run on five hits.

"I felt I could have came back," Chico said about Sunday's game. "But about 45 minutes into it, I was in the gray area, coming up to an hour. They didn't want to take the chance of [me] going out there and [being] cold."

The good news regarding Chico's short outing is that he didn't walk a batter. Finding the strike zone had been a problem for the rookie early in the season.

"That's the thing I've been trying to work on," Chico said. "I want to get the first-pitch strikes, the ground balls -- let the defense handle everything."

Reliever Saul Rivera picked up the win by pitching two innings, during which he gave up one run.

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.