Nationals 8-5, Brewers 4-1: Second Look

Welcome to the first doubleheader edition of Second Look, where we try to pack not one, but two, games worth of analysis into one blog post. Should be interesting.

A year ago last weekend, the Nationals got two of the most dichotomous pitching performances they had all season. Livan Hernandez shut out the Milwaukee Brewers on April 17, 2010, putting the Nationals over .500 for the first time since the 2008 season. The next day, Jason Marquis made what would turn out to be his final start for almost four months, getting pulled after failing to retire any of the first seven batters he faced. He went on the disabled list that week, and had surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow.

On Sunday, both of those pitchers took the mound for the Nationals, again facing the Brewers. This time, they got more consistent results; Marquis and Hernandez each went seven innings, both gaining victories in a doubleheader sweep of the Brewers.

The Nationals’ starters now have the fifth-best ERA in baseball, and are the last team to have a starter work at least five innings in every game they’ve played. Marquis’ resurgence has been a big part of that, but so has Hernandez’s ability to continue at a high level after a bounce-back year in 2010. He has a 2.28 ERA in four starts, after going 3-1 with an 0.87 ERA last April.

“We’ve really pitched good,” manager Jim Riggleman said. “(It was) Marquis and Livo today, but pretty each time through, our starter has given us every opportunity to win a ballgame. We feel like we’re going to swing the bats; today, we did. Our guys have just really been outstanding.”

Here are the awards from Sunday’s games:

Golden Geese
Marquis: Hernandez’s performance was probably better, but the significance of Marquis’ rebound, 364 days after the worst start of his career, shouldn’t be ignored. He’s looked good since the start of spring training, gaining complete command of his sinker after fighting with the pitch last year. On Sunday, it had so much bite that several Brewers hitters said they thought it was a split-fingered fastball. “It was really just command, getting ahead of hitters,” Marquis said. “My focus has changed this year a lot to just pounding the strike zone as much as possible, letting my defense do the work.”

Danny Espinosa: I spent a while after the game talking to Espinosa about his approach from the left side of the plate, which yielded two big hits on Sunday, and I’ll have more on that later today. But he deserves credit here for essentially splitting both of these games open - the first with a three-run homer off Yovani Gallardo, and the second with a bases-loaded triple off Kameron Loe to put the Nationals up 4-1. On the homer, he took five straight pitches, letting Gallardo back from a three-ball count before turning on a fastball. The shot was the first hit the Nationals have gotten from a leadoff hitter this year at home. And Espinosa now leads the team with 14 RBIs.

Ian Desmond: Perhaps hitting lower in the lineup took some pressure off the shortstop, or perhaps it just coincided with his swing coming around. But batting seventh in the first game and sixth in the second game, he had a pair of 2-for-4 days, homering for the second time this year.

Goose Eggs
Chad Gaudin: The Nationals did so few things wrong yesterday that we’re picking nits a little bit, but Gaudin had a rough outing in the first game, allowing two runs on a hit and two walks in 2/3 of an inning in the first game. He was supposed to finish the game, but got into enough trouble that Riggleman brought in Tyler Clippard to wrap things up. That might have been a needless reason to get Clippard up with the Nationals still ahead by four, but Gaudin could have gotten through the ninth without putting the thought in manager Jim Riggleman’s head.

Doug Slaten: The left-hander continued to struggle in the first game on Sunday, retiring two of the four batters he faced. This season, he still has a 0.00 ERA, but he’s put seven of 18 batters on base with either a hit or a walk.

In Case You Missed It:
* When Michael Morse tried to stretch a single into a double in the second game and got gunned down, it became a little more apparent why Riggleman pinch-ran for him with Laynce Nix earlier this week. Morse should have easily been safe, but got thrown out at second. He’s playing a little banged up, but he hit the ball well enough that a double shouldn’t have been an issue.

* The Nationals hit five homers on Sunday. They came from Espinosa, Ivan Rodriguez (who’d hit six in his previous 523 at-bats), Desmond (who was hitless in his first 29 at-bats at Nationals Park), Jerry Hairston (who homered on his second hit of the year and went 3-for-3 in the second game) and Adam LaRoche (who is playing with two injuries and began Sunday with a .286 slugging percentage). And they’re now 5-2 without Ryan Zimmerman in the lineup.

* Rick Ankiel again flashed his strong arm in center field in the second game of the doubleheader, nearly throwing out Prince Fielder at second base from the warning track.

* Desmond is now 6-for-6 this year in stolen base attempts.

* Jayson Werth sat out the second game of the doubleheader; Riggleman said the right fielder had been playing with some aches and pains, but will be back in the lineup on Tuesday in St. Louis. He wanted to use the doubleheader to get Laynce Nix in the lineup. Nix has actually been hitting well; he’s 5-for-16 with a homer in his last six games.

Talking Points:
1. How surprised are you with the way the Nationals have pitched early this year? Did you think it was possible they’d start off this well, or were you expecting the rotation to be a liability like most people were? I thought the rotation would improve on last year, but I didn’t think it’d be the reason the Nationals were winning games, though there’s plenty of time for that to change. What’s your take on the pitching staff?

2. Last year, the Nationals got over .500 for the first time with a pair of wins against the Brewers, and started 20-15. Then, they faded badly, playing .385 ball the rest of the way and winning just 69 games for the year. Are you excited about the solid start - considering they’ve won seven of 10 after starting 1-4 - or did you learn your lesson about early optimism last year?

Leave your answers in the comments section. I’ll have a more detailed look at Espinosa’s progress from the left side later today, and there’s another podcast coming, as well.