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09/01/09 1:48 AM ET

Web gems deliver Friars, Stauffer win

Padres take opener from Nationals with defensive clinic

SAN DIEGO -- It took five months, 133 games and a bevy of roster changes -- remember Duaner Sanchez? -- but the Padres secured their first winning month of the year Monday by winning yet another game that was essentially defined by their defense.

Sure, starting pitcher Tim Stauffer worked past five innings for the first time in a month, allowing one run in 6 2/3 innings en route to a 3-1 Padres win over the Nationals in front of a crowd of 19,867 at PETCO Park.

And it probably didn't hurt that the Padres scored twice in the first inning before Livan Hernandez, the Nationals starting pitcher, began pitching like it was 2000 all over again, the year he won 17 games for the Giants.

Looking for one reason why the Padres (57-76) won on Monday and why they finished the month 15-14 -- about as far removed from their July debacle (8-20) as humanly possible?

Look no further than the defense.

In one blissful sequence in the seventh inning, the Padres got an outfield assist from right fielder Will Venable, who turned a single by Wil Nieves into a quick out at second base, cutting down what would have been the potential tying run.

Two batters later, and after Stauffer walked Hernandez, leadoff hitter Willie Harris sent a fly ball to left field that Oscar Salazar -- making his first start in the outfield for the Padres -- drifted back on and hauled in just before hitting the fence.

"I mean, you've got a first baseman playing the outfield right there. I thought for sure it was going to be a knock," Harris said. "He made a good play, and it kind of took the breath out of us right there. It was an amazing play."

The fence stood, but Salazar fell to the ground with a left knee contusion. He would leave the game and is listed as day-to-day. His work, and that of Venable, didn't go unnoticed after the game, particularly by manager Bud Black who made a point of talking about his defense.

"The overall team defense has really picked up. You can go back to those last two series on the road, the plays that were made in Florida," Black said, referring to a diving catch by Venable on Sunday in Florida and another diving catch in the series by Tony Gwynn.

"It's saving runs for us."

Those two plays surely saved Stauffer (3-6), who hadn't worked past five innings since July 30. Stauffer showed good life on his fastball, striking out five. And even though he walked three, he was much more efficient, getting seven outs on fly balls and seven by ground balls.

"It's about time," Stauffer joked about the stretch of five previous starts where he went exactly five innings. "I still had a couple of walks, but my aggressiveness was better. I felt like I had better stuff.

And on those plays by Venable and Salazar?

"They probably saved the game with both those plays," Stauffer said.

The bullpen, now without eight-inning specialist Mike Adams, who is on the disabled list with a strained shoulder, got the final seven outs. Adam Russell got Ryan Zimmerman to end the seventh inning on a ground ball with two on base.

In the eighth inning, left-hander Joe Thatcher got the only batter he faced, Adam Dunn, on a fly ball to center. Luke Gregerson followed by striking out the two batters he faced before Heath Bell worked a scoreless ninth inning for his 32nd save.

The Padres turned a 2-1 lead into a 3-1 victory when Chase Headley hit a solo home run in the eighth inning, the seventh pinch-hit home run for the team this season.

Runs where hard to come by, though, as Hernandez retired 13 hitters at one point.

Stauffer allowed a baserunner in all but one of the innings he pitched. In his last inning, the seventh, it looked like the Nationals (46-86) might chase home the tying run. But the plays by Salazar and Venable ended any such momentum.

"It's part of being comfortable out there and having confidence that I'm going to get a good jump on a ball and make a play," Venable said. "When you've got a guy on the mound doing a great job, you want to do everything you can to help."

Corey Brock is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.