Rachel Levitin: Winning three of four vs. Cubs shows progress

The Nationals couldn't sweep the Cubs this series though they tried. On the upside, they're still above .500 with a 44-43 record. Whether or not last night's dropped contest should define a half-season's worth of progress is irrelevant. Fact of the matter is that the Nationals have shown improvement from the 2010 season and that should be noted.

There are few lessons to be learned from this four-game series:

A tired bullpen is not a strong bullpen. Bullpen coach Jim Lett and his squad of relievers continue to hold the opposition to minimal offensive spurts. Starter Livan Hernandez giving up six runs in the sixth inning didn't help the bullpen, but it also shouldn't have been the reason for allowing an 8-6 game to end in a 10-9 loss. Sean Burnett's failure to sparkle on the mound like he did last year is disappointing.

When needed, the Nats can be clutch. Remember that squeeze bunt to win it Wednesday? How about Ross Detwiler's strong season debut for Washington on Tuesday? And then of course there was Monday's walk-off due to a wild pitch in extra innings. Last year's four-game Cubs series in Washington resulted in the Nats being swept by the Cubs. A 3-1 record in 2011 is an improvement over that.

Defense is crucial to the Nats' success. Roger Bernadina is a vacuum in the outfield and Danny Espinosa is making his case as a Gold Glove and Rookie of the Year candidate at second base. This series highlighted the team's strengths on defense, including a few on-the-money throws from Ian Desmond at shortstop and footwork from Michael Morse at first base.

The offensive can still work with a struggling slugger. Earlier in the season, when Ryan Zimmerman was on the disabled list, the Nats' lineup strung together an offense as best as they could. Laynce Nix, in particular, stepped up to try and prove that Washington could still hit the ball even without the face of the franchise starting every day. Offense wasn't a problem for Washington in this series. They scored more than three or more runs in each game.

So the series didn't end with a sweep. In this case, an improvement over last year and even earlier in the season deserves the attention.

Rachel Levitin blogs about the Nationals for We Love DC, and will be sharing her observations about baseball in the nation's capital this week as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our little corner of cyberspace. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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