Nationals 3, Marlins 2: Second Look

With another one-run win on Sunday, the Nationals crossed a couple of semi-significant thresholds: For the second straight day, they beat a team that’s made a habit of snatching victories from them. They got to 17-14, equaling this season’s high-water mark for games above .500. And when they start a series with the Mets tonight, they’ll a) have a chance to get four games above .500 for the first time since 2005 and b) play something of a meaningful series for practically the first time since then.

The Nationals and Mets are tied for second place in the NL East, two games back of the Phillies in the division. The two teams were expected to be fighting for last place in the division, but instead, they’ll meet six times in the next two weeks (the first three at Citi Field, the next three at Nationals Park) in a couple of series that could help determine which way the Nationals are headed in the division.

But that’s tonight. For now, we’re going to peel back the layers of yesterday’s game in Second Look, starting with the day’s awards:

Golden Geese
Livan Hernandez: The 35-year-old continues to defy time and convention with the start to his 2010 season. He allowed one run in seven innings on Sunday, shutting down a dangerous lineup with his 84-mph fastball and slow-motion curveball. He also had a pair of sacrifices at the plate, and made a gutsy throw to start a double play and potentially save a run (more on that later). Hernandez continues to prove that a sharp mind beats a plus bat, at least occasionally.

Adam Dunn: The slugger played against type on Sunday, going 3-for-4 with two hits into the Marlins’ shift and one that went the other way to left field. No homers for Dunn, but he did drive in a run and showed an ability to do something other than mash the ball.

Adam Kennedy: He went 1-for-3 with a walk, scored a run and drove in another one. Kennedy’s run came after a nice piece of baserunning in the third inning. He drew a leadoff walk, went to second on Anibal Sanchez’s wild pitch and scored on Dunn’s single to left. Kennedy gets better jumps off pitchers than just about anyone on the Nationals’ roster, and that helped the Nationals score a key run on Sunday.

Josh Willingham: We’ve got to give an extra Golden Goose today for the man who hit a huge homer for the second day in a row against his former team. Willingham blasted a solo homer off Clay Hensley into the Marlins’ bullpen, giving the Nationals the lead for good. Hensley was killing Nationals pitchers this year, and Willingham knew to expect something off-speed. When he got a changeup, he didn’t miss it.

Goose Eggs
Sean Burnett: Manager Jim Riggleman said he was only going to use the left-hander for a maximum of two batters on Sunday, with the caveat that he’d pull Burnett for Tyler Clippard as soon as the Marlins put a runner on base. That came on the first batter Burnett faced, when Chris Coghlan singled off Burnett. Not a great way to engender confidence that you can be the seventh-inning solution - especially when it seemed like Riggleman was going to make a quick jump to Clippard anyway.

Tyler Clippard: It’s odd a pitcher gets a win and a Goose Egg in the same day, we’ll admit. And it’s even more odd that Clippard has six wins in the Nationals’ first 31 games; in fact, he’s only the seventh reliever since 1900 to do that. But the reality is, it shouldn’t have come to Clippard getting the win. He allowed Coghlan - who he inherited from Burnett - to score, giving up a walk, a hit and a sacrifice fly. As Federal Baseball points out, Clippard’s strikeout-to-walk ratio is significantly better with the bases empty than it is with runners on base (6.33 to 1.13) - still more evidence the Nationals need someone to prevent Clippard from having to clean up someone else’s mess in the seventh inning, because it appears he’s not all that good at it.

Ivan Rodriguez: The catcher was 0-for-4 at the plate, grounding into a double play with runners on first and second in the fifth, right after Chris Leroux had replaced Sanchez. It was a big moment in a bad day for Pudge.

In Case You Missed It:
--Kennedy’s base hit in the first inning, which dropped just in front of right fielder Cody Ross, bailed out Nyjer Morgan, who’d walked to start the game and was already at second by the time Kennedy’s ball hit the ground. Had it been caught, Morgan would’ve been doubled off first easily. Instead, he scored the Nationals’ first run on Ryan Zimmerman’s ensuing double play.

--Hernandez made a risky choice in the fourth inning with Dan Uggla on first and one out. John Baker hit a dribbler in front of the mound, and rather than throwing to first, Hernandez whipped around and threw to Ian Desmond at second, who got to the bag an eyelash before Uggla. Had Uggla been safe, he would have likely scored on the Ross single that followed, and the inning would’ve been extended even further.

--Willy Taveras got another marginal dose of action on Sunday, replacing Willingham in the ninth inning in left field and catching a fly ball. He’s been used primarily as a defensive replacement, and hasn’t started since April 26. When Mike Morse comes off the disabled list, the Nationals will have a interesting decision to make; Morse doesn’t have minor-league options left, but the Nationals like the defensive flexibility Taveras gives them in the late innings. The question is: Can they keep a roster spot for Taveras just in that role, especially when they’d like to see if Morse’s not-infrequent Jayson Werth comparisons might be legitimate?

Talking Points:
1. I wrote in the game story about the new identity the Nationals are creating around pitching and defense. Do you think that’s the case, and do you think it’s sustainable? Or is this ultimately a team that’s going to have to win its share of 8-6 games?

2. How worried are you about finding someone to take the stress off Clippard? Does he seem like a different pitcher to you when inheriting runners? How would you fix the problem - does Slaten help, or do you want, say, another one of his teammates from Syracuse (hint: his last name starts and finishes with the same letters as Slaten)?

3. Livan Hernandez said the P word on Sunday - “We’re fighting and trying to win the division or get a wild card,” he said. I’ve been told you’re not supposed to talk about such things. But should the Nationals be entertaining the thought? On one hand, it’s really, really early; on the other, what’s the point in playing if you don’t believe you can do it? Let me know your thoughts, and if you think it’s even remotely possible.

Leave your answers to the Talking Points questions in the comments. I’ll have more this afternoon.