Stammen solid for eight innings in victory over Rockies

WASHINGTON -- A little advice from wise ol' Livan Hernandez helped Washington Nationals pitcher Craig Stammen right himself.

While playing golf together during spring training, and again after Stammen struggled in a game last week, 1997 World Series MVP Hernandez told his teammate to make sure he relaxed on the mound and focused on location.

It worked. Stammen recovered from his shortest start in the majors with eight strong innings, Willie Harris homered and Washington moved back over .500 by beating the Colorado Rockies 5-2 Monday night before the smallest announced crowd in Nationals Park history.

The gist of Hernandez's help?

"Sometimes it's better to be calm than so intense and fired up out on the mound," Stammen said. "We played golf together, and he goes, 'How I play golf is how I pitch: just nice and easy, let it fly down the middle.' He's like, 'I hit the ball straight. If I overswing, then I don't hit the ball straight. It's the same thing with pitching. If I overpitch, I don't throw the ball straight.'"

Only 11,623 spectators saw Stammen (1-0) hold Colorado to two runs and five hits -- lowering his ERA from 15.63 to 8.16 -- before Matt Capps pitched the ninth for his sixth save in six chances.

Against the Phillies on Wednesday, Stammen lasted 1 1/3 innings, allowing seven runs. Manager Jim Riggleman pulled the right-hander into his office and told him to take some cues from Hernandez, the 35-year-old who tossed a complete-game shutout against Milwaukee on Saturday.

"I needed any little extra tips I could get," Stammen said.

He allowed an RBI double by Clint Barmes in the third. In the fourth, the Rockies loaded the bases with no outs but came away with only one run when Ian Stewart lined into an inning-ending double play.

"I got lucky there," Stammen said.

Perhaps. But listen to Riggleman's overall assessment: "He just got better and better as it went along. He was just outstanding. He really just was a pitcher tonight, wasn't a thrower."

Hernandez was impressed, too, saying: "His slider disappears."

The reviews weren't quite as glowing in the visiting clubhouse, because Colorado starter Aaron Cook (0-2) needed 85 pitches to get nine outs, and he allowed five runs, seven hits and four walks in his three innings.

"Cookie wasn't very good tonight," said Rockies manager Jim Tracy, whose team has lost four of its past five games. "There's no other way to describe it."

Cook's take on his abbreviated appearance?

"Not fun," he said. "I went out there today and couldn't give us a chance to win. Couldn't get my sinker over the plate."

Harris drove the first pitch he saw into the home bullpen beyond right field for a three-run shot in the second inning.

"Fastball, right in the middle," Harris said. "I was so happy. You don't know how I felt running around the bases."

The outfielder also delivered a sacrifice fly in a two-run third for the Nationals, who have won four of five to improve to 7-6 -- making this the "latest" point in a season they have had a winning record since Oct. 1, 2005, when they were 81-80.

Washington was never above .500 in 2006, 2007 or 2009; its last winning record in 2008 was 3-2.

After losing more than 100 games each of the past two seasons, the Nationals have been far more competitive so far in 2010.

"Whether it's a tangible thing or whether it's subconscious or whatever," Riggleman said, "it's got to seep in that we're a legitimate major league ballclub."

One clear key: The Nationals are 7-0 when their starter pitches at least five innings and 0-6 when he doesn't. Check out the last three games, too: After Hernandez's gem Saturday, Jason Marquis was yanked after allowing seven runs and failing to record an out in an 11-7 loss to Milwaukee.

And then came the performance by Stammen, whose 2009 season ended in July, before right elbow surgery in September. He pitched in pain last year because of bone chips in his right elbow -- the guy had to brush his teeth lefty -- but he's felt much better lately, turning in a solid spring training and looking good Monday, including five strikeouts.

"It's just a whole different ballgame -- to manage the game, to watch the game -- when your starter's out there relatively deep in the ballgame," Riggleman said.

Game notes
The previous record for smallest crowd at Nationals Park, which opened in 2008, was 12,473 on April 20, 2009. ... Rockies C Miguel Olivo threw out Nyjer Morgan (sixth inning) and Willy Taveras (seventh inning) trying to steal second. Entering Monday, the Nationals had been successful on 14 of 16 attempts.