SAN DIEGO - Set apart from its unusual backdrop - the Nationals' first-inning protest of Friday's game after the Padres listed the wrong pitcher on their lineup card - Washington's 5-3 win over San Diego last night was the kind of game the Nationals have excelled at winning most of this year. They seem destined to play close games most of the year, but they got good pitching and some key at-bats from two players (Josh Willingham and Ian Desmond) who are capable of converting the Nationals' lineup from a mediocre attack to a solid one when they'e on.
Both of them were on Friday night, hitting home runs, and after strong outings from John Lannan and Tyler Clippard, Matt Capps got one of his more, shall we say, Chad Cordero-like saves of the year, wandering into trouble with a few wrong turns and quickly marching out of it.
The end result had the Nationals a game back over .500, and for all their ups and downs lately, still only three back of the Phillies for first place in the NL East. A win in one of the next two games, and the Nationals will have survived the toughest portion of their schedule with a winning record heading into the friendliest part of the slate. And with Stephen Strasburg on the way soon.
Here are the awards from Friday:
Josh Willingham: The left fielder did it again on Friday night, hitting a three-run homer to center in the fifth inning. He's hitting .474 with four homers and 11 RBI in his last six games, and he's been on a hot streak unlike anything we've seen him do since last July. Ryan Zimmerman is hitting, but not hitting homers right now, so Willingham's power in the lineup is doubly important. If he stays strong for the next several weeks, he may play his way into the All-Star conversation.
John Lannan: The Nationals' best starter is headed in the right direction, and that might be the most important development from Friday's game. He had a better sinker than he's had most of the year, and he used it to allow two runs (one of them earned) in seven innings. Lannan still isn't pounding the strike zone as well as he's capable of doing; only 56 of his 88 pitches were strikes. But he's feeling no ill effects from the elbow discomfort that caused him to miss a start earlier this month, and is moving toward top form just as the Nationals hit a part of the schedule where he could be rewarded with some wins.
Ian Desmond: Let's get this out of the way first: Desmond shouldn't have tried to hurry a flip to Cristian Guzman and start a double play in the ninth inning. and he knows it. But his homer - and his RBI bunt single - were the difference in Friday's game. Desmond will make some mistakes in the field, but his athleticism and a poise beyond his years make up for most of those. When Jim Bowden made the Derek Jeter comparison...well, it was ridiculous. But you can see the traits on which it was based.
Nyjer Morgan: He went 0-for-4 on Friday, stretching his slump to one hit in his last 14 at-bats, and missed the cutoff man on a dangerous throw in the ninth inning after Chris Denorfia's single. The ball took a skeeball jump off the mound, and had Matt Capps not been in position to catch it, another run could have scored. Tough night for Morgan in a stretch where there have been plenty of them lately.
Justin Maxwell: Maxwell likely knew his most recent big-league stay was only for a week or so, and it wasn't a big surprise when he was sent down for J.D. Martin after the game. But he didn't help himself offensively on Friday, going 0-for-4 and lowering his average to .157. When Maxwell doesn't walk, he doesn't add much at the plate, and you've got to wonder whether the 27-year-old is going to catch on in Washington. He's one of the team's most likable players, but can't seem to find a way to stick in the majors. He's out of options after this year, so the Nationals will have to make a decision on him.
In Case You Missed It:
--Desmond's bunt base hit came on a matchup that has been available to the shortstop most of the season. Third baseman Chase Headley was playing back, as most third basemen have on Desmond, and he knew with his speed, he had a chance to beat one out. "'Skip' (manager JIm Riggleman) says all the time, 'Hey, you know. The option is yours, if you want to put it down,'" Desmond said. "A lot of the league is playing me back, so it's pretty much there all the time." On this particular play, it couldn't have worked out any better. Adam Kennedy, one of the team's smartest baserunners, was at third, and Desmond put down a bunt so sublime, no one on the left side of the Padres' infield had a chance to do anything with it. The RBI gave the Nationals a three-run cushion headed into the ninth.
--Speaking of infield singles, Ryan Zimmerman made a wise decision on Jerry Hairston's dribbler in the bottom of the ninth. San Diego had runners on first and second, and when Zimmerman charged Hairston's ball, the only option available was to rush a throw to first. The risk-reward on that play doesn't tilt in the Nationals' favor, especially with Zimmerman's occasional habit of yanking throws high. He chose to eat the throw instead, preventing a situation where something could've gone wrong and pulled the Padres even closer to taking the lead.
--This is a bit of an aside, but with the Giants set to call up Buster Posey on the anniversary of the Orioles bringing up Matt Wieters, it's worth pointing out the significance of May 29; it's the point at which players generally wind up with less than 130 days of service time, thought to be the date at which bringing up a player won't put a team at risk of early arbitration. Would Stephen Strasburg be pitching in Washington, not Syracuse, if the Nationals were at home today? It's hard to say for sure, and it's probably a moot point. But with regard to arbitration, the Posey move probably means the Nationals are clear from here on out.
1. What was the key, in your mind, to Friday's win? Was it Willingham's homer, Desmond's offensive contributions, Lannan's start or the effectiveness of Clip 'n' Save, despite Capps' adventures in the ninth? Give me your MVP, so to speak.
2. Should Willingham be in the All-Star conversation? It's a different question than asking if he'll get in; he's not a big name, and the Phillies will have a few reserve candidates at the position with Charlie Manuel making the picks. But Willingham is among the NL leaders in several key offensive categories -- second in WARP, first in OBP, fourth in OPS, tied for sixth in homers, first in walks, and so on. Maybe I just answered my own question. But tell me your thoughts anyway.
3. What do the Nationals need to do to get out of their endless dance with the .500 mark? Will that come as a byproduct of their upcoming schedule, or do they need to improve on some things?
Leave your answers in the comments section -- I might break out the Willingham thoughts into a separate post in a little bit. Today's game is at 8:35 local time, and I'll have plenty more from there. I'll also be on Nats Xtra tonight to discuss the Nationals' rotation with Johnny and Ray.