Nationals 3, Cubs 2: Second Look

The Nationals are off today, heading to Florida after taking the last two games from the Cubs at Wrigley Field despite scoring a combined six runs on 10 hits in that time. There’s been a lot of talk this year about games the Nationals wouldn’t have won last year, and these last two wins can safely be added to that pile. As I discussed in the game story, it’s pitching and defense that are bringing these games home for the Nats, and that’s just a different way of doing things than they’ve had before. Once they start hitting, they’ve got a chance to really get on a roll.

On with the awards for Wednesday’s game:

Golden Geese
Adam Dunn: His opposite-field homer came at a big moment in the game, putting the Nationals ahead 2-1 while Luis Atilano was still struggling to throw quality strikes. Dunn has homered three times in his last five games, and he’s 8-for-24 in that stretch. The Nationals’ biggest home run threat is finally becoming a presence in the middle of the lineup.

Brian Bruney: He’s been the target of plenty of ire lately, and he got himself into trouble in the seventh inning by giving up a pair of singles. But Bruney kept the Nationals’ one-run lead intact by forcing a pair of groundouts to Cristian Guzman at second base, one that went for a double play. He continues to struggle staying over the top of his fastball and getting the leverage to keep it down in the zone, but credit Bruney for pitching out of a jam in his first appearance since walking in the winning run on Monday night.

Luis Atilano: In another example of a player getting the job done without his best stuff, Atilano pitched six innings, giving up two runs on six hits while walking three. He spent too much time nibbling around the corners of the plate, perhaps lacking the unencumbered approach he had in his first start, when he didn’t have enough time to think about the task at hand to deviate from being aggressive. But he got back to getting ground balls in the middle innings of his start, including one to end a bases-loaded jam in the fifth inning.

Goose Eggs
Nyjer Morgan: An 0-for-3 day with two strikeouts came at the end of a long hot streak for the center fielder. He’d had two or more hits in four of the Nationals’ last five games, but struggled against Ryan Dempster on Wednesday.

Josh Willingham: Willingham went 0-for-4 on Wednesday, part of a 4-for-27 slump that comes after the left fielder had a .327 average and three homers in his first 15 games.

In Case You Missed It:
--Atilano threw first-pitch strikes to just 14 of 28 batters, and five of those were on balls in play. That’s not a great recipe for success in the long run, especially when Atilano, like many of the Nationals’ pitchers, doesn’t have put-away stuff. He’ll have to do a better job of getting ahead in the count as batters get more film on him,

--All three Cubs batters in the ninth inning swung at Matt Capps’ first pitch, after seven of the last 15 batters he’d faced had done the same thing. It seems like batters are starting to go after Capps earlier in counts, hoping to sting an early fastball rather than waiting for his off-speed pitches. So far, though, it’s still working; Capps had a 1-2-3 ninth on Wednesday.

--The Nationals had only one at-bat with a runner in scoring position, when Wil Nieves drove in Roger Bernadina in the second inning. Their other two runs came on homers.

Talking Points:
1. Where does taking two of three at Wrigley Field, and beating Ryan Dempster for the first time, rank among the series wins this year? Is that a bigger accomplishment than beating the Dodgers two out of three, or winning two against the Mets (who are now in first place)?

2. How sustainable is the Nats’ pattern of winning low-scoring games? Is this pitching staff, bullpen and defense good enough to keep that up? Obviously, you need the bats to come around at some point, but good teams can win games when they’re not hitting. Can the Nats continue to do that, or do you see a fall coming at some point.

3. The Nationals guaranteed themselves their first winning month since Sept. 2007. Considering the schedule they were facing this month, how significant is that? Do you take it as a sign of something more than just a good month?

Leave your answers in the comments section, and we can kick those around for a while. I’ll have some minor-league info later today and details on our fan get-together, scheduled for Saturday night during the Nats-Marlins game.