Nats' Astacio tosses two-hit CG shutout vs. Braves

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Pedro Astacio joined the Washington Nationals in March, a stopgap signing for a thin rotation. Then, in his final spring training tuneup, Astacio hurt his arm and missed the season's first three months.

All of that seemed a distant memory Tuesday night, as Astacio threw strike after strike against the Atlanta Braves, going 4 2/3 perfect innings en route to a two-hit shutout and a 5-0 victory for Washington.

"I went pitch by pitch, hitter by hitter, trying to make them swing," Astacio said after allowing only singles by Jeff Francoeur
in the fifth and Adam LaRoche in the seventh. "I wasn't thinking no-hitter."

It was Washington's first complete game of the season, leaving the Chicago Cubs as the only team in the majors without one in 2006. For Astacio, it was his 31st complete game and 12th shutout -- but his first shutout since a two-hitter for the New York Mets against the Los Angeles Dodgers on May 14, 2002.

Did he remember that last one?

"Not really," he said. "2002? About time."

The 36-year-old Astacio (3-2) didn't walk a batter and struck out five, including Matt Diaz swinging to end it, with a crowd of 24,036 standing and clapping. Astacio needed only 89 pitches, throwing 66 strikes, and faced two batters over the limit.

The game took only 2 hours, 1 minute. Braves starter Lance Cormier (2-4) was called up from Triple-A Richmond, and he lasted 4 2/3 innings, giving up five runs -- three earned -- and eight hits.

But Astacio was the center of attention. Braves manager Bobby Cox compared the righty's work to Greg Maddux. LaRoche said it was more like Pedro Martinez.

"That's what we were saying after the third inning: 'He's pitching just like Pedro. He's throwing any pitch he wants on any count.' You just try to put a bat on it," LaRoche said. "He was working quick and confident."

The performance is clearly the highlight of what Astacio acknowledged has been a difficult season.

He was released by the Rangers in 2005 after going 2-8 with a 6.04 ERA and then signed a minor-league deal with the Padres, for whom he went 4-2. Astacio was still a free agent a month before the start of the season when Washington signed him to a one-year deal after starter Brian Lawrence needed surgery. But Astacio left his final exhibition start after two innings and was sidelined by a right forearm strain.

In his Washington debut on July 3 against Florida, he allowed three hits in five innings, but he hadn't allowed fewer than six hits in any of his seven starts since.

"You've seen signs of it, parts of it. It just clicked tonight," Nationals manager Frank Robinson said. "He was just in that zone, from the first pitch, and it kept building, building and building."

The masterpiece came against a Braves team that entered with a collective batting average of .272, tied for second in the NL, and was coming off quite a display of offense Monday. In that game, Atlanta tallied 14 hits and 10 runs, with Chipper Jones homering in three consecutive at-bats and Diaz hitting safely in his first four trips to the plate to tie an NL record with hits in 10 at-bats in a row.

No such show Tuesday. Astacio kept his pitch count low by getting ahead, starting with a strike to 22 of 29 batters. He didn't have to face Andruw Jones (.274, 29 homers, 100 RBI), who missed the game with left knee tendinitis.

"When he got out there in the first inning, he went right to business and was throwing all his pitches for strikes," catcher Brian Schneider said. "He didn't nibble out the complete game. He went right at guys and really challenged the guys and was able to keep them off-guard by throwing his offspeed pitches on any count, at any time."

Astacio retired his first 14 batters until Francoeur lined a first-pitch single to right with two outs in the fifth. The clean hit made Francoeur 3-for-5 for his career against Astacio.

As Francoeur stood on the bag at first, and Astacio paced around the mound a bit, some fans treated the pitcher to a standing ovation. The only really tough defensive play all night came when first baseman Nick Johnson backhanded pinch-hitter Pete Orr's liner
in the eighth.

"When I looked for fastball, middle-in, I got a fastball, middle-in, but it was two inches above the 'happy zone,'" Chipper Jones said. "You have to give him credit -- he was outstanding."

Game notes
Astacio's previous complete game was Aug. 6, 2002, for the Mets against the Brewers. ... The prior complete game by a Nationals pitcher was thrown by Livan Hernandez last Sept. 20.