SAN FRANCISCO - It will be tempting to paint the Nationals' 7-3 win over the San Francisco Giants on Wednesday as a win of unproven pitcher over unquestioned stalwart. It's easy. And the Nationals did win in part because Luis Atilano was better than Tim Lincecum.
But let's put the victory in its proper context; Lincecum had his worst start of the year in his previous outing, and scattered his usually-dominant stuff all over the strike zone on Wednesday night. Epic pitchers' duel this was not, because Lincecum wasn't up to it.
What this was, was a methodical dismantling of an often unhittable, but currently vulnerable ace, by an offense that's been hard to typify lately. The Nationals are capable of toppling an ace one night and going limp against a fifth starter the next, but on Wednesday, they found all the holes in Lincecum's game and barged through them.
Washington's hitters worked five walks off the two-time Cy Young winner, stole four bases off him and catcher Bengie Molina (who might combine to form one of the worst batteries in the National League at holding runners) and had booted Lincecum from the game by the fifth inning. Afterward, they talked like they expected to beat him all along.
"If you just figure this or that before the season starts, before the series starts, before a game starts, you can take a lot of things for granted," manager Jim Riggleman said. "The umpire says 'Play ball,' you grind it out, and you just don't know."
In a city where Chris Berman's gotten plenty of material, this was the ultimate "that's why they play the games" game, where the Nationals needed to beat Lincecum to even the series and gave him his first loss of the season.
They made him throw 70 pitches by the fourth inning, taking advantage of his scattershot control, and after not stealing a base since May 10, ran every chance they got. If Lincecum could've gotten going, given the chance, the Nationals never handed it to him.
"Even when he's not good, he's still good," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "Even when he's the worst he's ever been, he's still really good. He's got electric stuff. I think tonight, the difference was he couldn't go electric fastball, electric curveball, electric changeup. He wasn't on you the whole time. There was a little break in between, like, 'OK, here's a fastball, here's one way out of the zone,' and got you back into the hitters' count."
None of this is to say Atilano didn't pitch well. He needed a good start after giving up nine earned runs in his last 9 1/3 innings, and he worked a sharp sinker for two runs in 5 1/3 innings. But the Nationals' offense needed this just as badly.
They'll face Barry Zito tomorrow before heading to San Diego for three games with the Padres, who lead the majors with nine shutouts. They're missing Ivan Rodriguez for the duration of this road trip, and they entered Wednesday night having scored 38 runs in their last 11 games.
To knock Lincecum down wasn't just a statement. It was a necessity. And the Nationals might have turned around a road trip by doing it.
"We've got a good offense," Desmond said. "We believe in ourselves just as much as anybody else, the manager or whoever. We believe that it doesn't matter who you put out there. If you throw the ball over the plate, we're going to hit it."