Hold On Tight

Published 1:54 am Wednesday, July 21, 2010

CINCINNATI — Mike Leake did some solid pitching and had a nice at-bat, too. He hung around through a long rain delay, just so he could get in more swings. When he finally left, things seemed well in hand.

That’s when the sweating began.

Leake pitched five solid innings before a long rain delay Tuesday night, and the Cincinnati Reds blew most of a seven-run lead after the break before holding on for an 8-7 win over the Washington Nationals.

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The Reds led 5-1 in the middle of the fifth, when rain forced a 2-hour, 40-minute delay. The lead went to 8-1 before the Nationals rallied against the bullpen.

Leake became the first Reds rookie to open a season 7-1 since Wayne Simpson in 1970. The 22-year-old gave up five hits in five innings, hung around for an at-bat after the break, then watched stoically as a bullpen that has blown two potential wins for him flirted with another meltdown.

“I wasn’t really concerned,” Leake said. “If it happened, it happened. Luckily, it didn’t.”

Not everyone was so cool.

“Whew, I’m still sweating,” manager Dusty Baker said. “The game’s over and I’m still sweating.”

A good beginning barely held up on a long night. Joey Votto hit a three-run homer off Luis Atilano (6-7), who got the worst of a matchup between rookie starters. Leake also had an RBI single.

Nationals manager Jim Riggleman rearranged his batting order, hoping to get something out of a lineup that had scored only two runs while losing the last three games. The new-look lineup didn’t get going until the rain stopped and Leake left.

Washington sent 10 batters to the plate for six runs in the sixth off relievers Micah Owings and Bill Bray. Ryan Zimmerman hit a two-run homer, and Michael Morse had a pinch-hit, bases-loaded triple.

“We got the momentum back on our side,” Morse said. “In a game like this, you don’t know what’s going to happen. There’s a long rain delay, and we fought, fought, fought to the end.”

And lost again. Francisco Cordero pitched the ninth for his 26th save, getting Adam Dunn on a called third strike to end it. The Nationals have lost four straight, falling a season-high 14 games below .500 at 40-54.

“It’s tough,” Riggleman said. “Guys are battling and losing. It wears on you. I keep telling them it’s going to turn for us.”

Only a few thousand fans from a crowd of 22,876 waited out the delay. When a foul ball went into the nearly empty upper deck, fans ignored the game and directed a young man to the spot where the ball landed, giving him an ovation when he finally found it.

Leak was the NL’s most impressive rookie pitcher at the start of the season, jumping directly from Arizona State and winning his first five decisions. He’s been overshadowed by Stephen Strasburg, who will pitch for the Nationals on Wednesday.

When it comes to hitting, no pitcher is better than Leake. He singled home a run in the fourth inning, the second straight day a Reds pitcher helped himself get an early lead. Johnny Cueto singled home two runs in a 7-2 win on Monday night.

For Leake, it was no fluke. The first-round draft pick leads all NL pitchers with a .385 average. Baker let Leake bat after the rain delay — he struck out — then took him out.

The Nationals sent Atilano to Triple-A Syracuse to make one start during the All-Star break, hoping to keep him sharp. Instead, he got pounded by Pawtucket — five runs, seven hits, three walks in 2 1-3 innings. Back on a big-league mound, he struggled again.

The poor showing may have jeopardized his spot in the rotation.

“I don’t know,” Riggleman said. “He’s scheduled to pitch Sunday. We’ll reevaluate it, I guess. He just carried that performance from Syracuse into this game. It wasn’t very good.”

NOTES: Nationals C Ivan Rodriguez tried to bluff a throw and had the ball slip from his hand, rolling to the third baseman. … Reds RF Jay Bruce broke an 0-for-16 slump with a double. … Banished hits king Pete Rose watched from a luxury box behind home plate before the rain delay. … Reliever Jason Isringhausen worked out for the Reds. The 37-year-old free agent is trying to come back from two elbow operations in the last two years.