WASHINGTON (AP) -- Now that the Washington Nationals have started to win, they're doing it with a little variety. One night after persevering in a 12-inning marathon, they needed only 2 hours, 4 minutes to sprint past the Pittsburgh Pirates.
One thing both victories had in common: a late game-winning hit. This time it was Austin Kearns, whose two-out RBI single in the eighth inning was the difference in Thursday night's 3-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates.
"It's easy to try to do too much right there, and sometimes I've been guilty of that," Kearns said. "So just trying to keep it simple."
The Nationals have won a season-high four straight, including a three-game sweep of the Atlanta Braves. The latest victory was especially promising because Kearns was among several players who had been slumping badly in April.
Kearns was mired in a 2-for-29 skid before going 2-for-4 Thursday with a run scored in addition to his first RBI in 10 games. The two-hit night raised his average from .182 to .194.
"There's so much more to Austin Kearns than the expectations that the outside world has put on him," manager Manny Acta said. "The expectations were, you know, 40 home runs, 120 RBIs, this and that, and I felt they were very high. I think a lot of people underestimate what Austin brings to our club.
"On the field, he's one of the best in right field. He can field, he can throw, he's accurate. He plays hard, no one can accuse him of lollygagging here, ever. He works extremely hard and if you do that, we have a tendency to believe in them, that they're going to come out of any kind of slump they're in."
Luis Ayala (1-1) pitched the eighth to get the victory in a game played at a torrid pace because of fine outings from starting lefties Zach Duke and Odalis Perez, who both remain winless on the season. Jon Rauch worked the ninth for his sixth save, doubling his career total from the start of the season. He's serving as Washington's closer while Chad Cordero nurses an arm injury.
Wil Nieves started the scoring with a two-run single for the Nationals, who have won seven of nine to improve the clubhouse mood after a terrible first three weeks of April. Freddy Sanchez and Ryan Doumit homered for the Pirates, who have lost five of seven.
"It's a tough one for us," said Duke, whose season now consists of four no-decisions and three losses. "I was able to keep them off balance, get a lot of ground balls."
Duke's only miscue came in the second, when he threw a pitch over the fat part of the plate to the No. 8 hitter on a 2-0 count with two men on base and first empty. Nieves grounded the pitch through a drawn-in infield for a two-run single that scored Lastings Milledge and Kearns.
"I caught a little more of the plate than I wanted to, but it's still a ground ball," Duke said. "It just happened to be a little too far to my second baseman's right."
Duke's seven innings matched his longest start of the season. He allowed five hits with two walks and one strikeout. He has now gone nearly a year without a win on the road, his last victory away from home coming against Cincinnati on May 27, 2007.
Perez, still 0-3, has allowed two or fewer runs in six of his seven starters, but his teammates have given him just 10 total runs of support in those six outings.
On Thursday, he retired the first 10 batters he faced. Sanchez was No. 11, belting the ball into the Pirates bullpen in left center in the fourth inning for his first home run of the season. Perez then allowed Doumit's fifth homer -- also to left center -- in the seventh.
Perez, who had not pitched longer than six innings all season, got through seven before being lifted for a pinch hitter. He allowed three hits, struck out four and walked none.
"I'm happy the way I'm performing," Perez said. "I just need to get more luck and to win games. But I'm happy we won."
The Nationals and Pirates will start a left-hander in each of the first three games of the four-game series. The last time there were three consecutive lefty matchups was 1995 in an Aug. 5-7 series between Atlanta and Montreal. ... Pittsburgh manager John Russell remains confident that LHP Tom Gorzelanny will not miss a start. Gorzelanny left Wednesday's win over the New York Mets with a back problem. "It's just a tight back, that's all," Russell said. ... Pirates INF Jack Wilson, on the 15-day DL with a strained left calf, was expected to see action at extended spring training Thursday and Friday before reporting to Double-A Altoona on Saturday. ... The Pirates released RHP Olivo Astacio (Class-A Lynchburg) from the 40-man roster for what the team called "a significant violation of organization policy."