Nats gain ground in race not to be all-time worst

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WASHINGTON - The loss was like many others suffered by the Washington Nationals this season. The starting pitcher dug himself a big hole in the first inning, the bullpen made things worse, and the lineup couldn't get a timely hit.

Yet the clubhouse of the worst team in baseball wasn't a den of misery afterward. The Nationals had won four games in row to raise their victory total to 20 before Sunday's 9-4 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays.

The streak helped change the vibe at the ballpark on South Capitol Street. And if the Nationals can keep it up they will end up just plain bad instead of historically bad - chasing a.400 win percentage instead of the record 120 losses of the 1962 New York Mets.

After 67 games, the Mets were 19-48; the Nationals are 20-47.

"I know we're better than the '62 Mets," said second-year pitcher John Lannan, the only non-rookie in the starting rotation. "We're not going to go down as the worst team in baseball history, that's for sure. It's just four games, but hopefully it continues and we leave that all in the past."

After winning back-to-back series for the first time this season - the Nationals took 2 out of 3 from the New York Yankees before doing the same to Toronto - Washington is now on pace to go 48-114.

That is still awful, but everything is relative.

"It was a great week for us," said Joel Hanrahan, the reliever who gave up three runs in the ninth.

"I'm happy with the way that we played this past week," said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, even though he is mired in an 0-for-17 skid.

A week ago, a rumor swirled that manager Manny Acta was about to be fired, and every game was as compelling as a bad disaster movie - you had to watch just to see what would happen next. Turns out Acta still has his job, and the young starting rotation is starting to make fans believe that perhaps the team really does have a future.

"You're going to go through a bad period, and we went through a very long bad period," Acta said before Sunday's game. "And now certain things are clicking, and our starting pitching has a lot of to do with it."

The starters' ERA has hovered around 3.00 for their games in June, and a potpourri of scrap heap veteran relievers has helped stabilize a bullpen whose record has improved from 1-15 to 7-23. But defense remains a liability - league-high 64 errors - and the hitting attack that was the sole bright spot for so long has gone quiet, scoring five runs only twice in the last 17 games.

But at least the Nationals have put some space between themselves and the Mets of 37 years ago. However, there's a long way to go.

"You have to continue to play well because you can fall right back into it in a week," Acta said. "I think everyone in here knows that once you win one or two games, those projections fall off really bad. Nobody wants to be hearing negative stuff. I don't want to come in here every day and do a press conference and explain why we lose."

The next challenge starts Tuesday, when the Nationals will feel like strangers in their own ballpark. The Boston Red Sox will play their first regular-season series in the nation's capital since 1971, and tickets are in high demand for one of the few times all season. Lannan estimated the split could be 80-20 in favor of the visitors.

"It's every big team. They come here, it's like a home game for them," Lannan said.

Nevertheless, it's a chance to win a third series in a row.

"We have to do a good job of just telling these guys, 'We're not facing a name; we're facing a baseball team. We're facing guys like us,'" Acta said. "We don't want to be intimidated by the name."

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