Behind stellar efforts from Adam Dunn, Josh Willingham and Livan Hernandez, the Nationals capped off their three-game sweep of the visiting Pittsburgh Pirates by a score of 4-2. Dunn, Willingham and right fielder Mike Morse all connected on solo home runs to propel the Nationals offense behind Livan Hernandez.
Livan had gone six consecutive starts since his last victory on May 9th. It's not as though Hernandez has pitched poorly, giving up no more than four earned runs in any previous outing. Tonight, Livan tossed 98 pitches in his six innings of work, giving up only two runs on five hits while striking out three and walking two.
Sean Burnett went two innings in relief tonight, allowing two hits and striking out one in his scoreless effort. After Matt Capps recorded back-to-back saves against the Pirates in the first two games of the series, manager Jim Riggleman decided to give him an off night, allowing Tyler Clippard the opportunity in the ninth. Clippard got the first two Bucs out easily in the inning before surrendering a single to catcher Jason Jaramillo. However, Clippard then got former National great Ryan Church to strike out swinging to end the ball game.
The Nationals offense pounded out 10 hits tonight, eight of those coming off Pirates ace Zach Duke. Spot starter in right field Mike Morse propelled the attack with a 3-3 effort, including the insurance solo home run to put the Nats up two in the bottom of the eight. Adam Dunn had two hits and scored two runs to go with his home run, and Pudge Rodriguez went 1-3 in his second game back from the disabled list.
For the Pirates, somebody better warn Lastings Milledge fast that he's about to fail out of his third major league organization. He failed at Shea Stadium with the Mets, flunked miserably as a National, and is now on the verge of riding pine in Pittsburgh. Andrew McCutchen is not going anywhere as he is the face of the new Pirates. Garrett Jones provides a lot of power for the young Bucs in right field. And now top prospect Jose Tabata, who got his second consecutive start tonight and went 1-4, is in the show quite possibly to stay. What a sad state of affairs for the once super prospect the Mets refused to include in a deal with Aaron Heilman in a deal for Manny Ramirez some years ago.
What a great series for the Nationals. A sweep is good at any time, but this sweep is something special for the Nationals. You have the 14 strikeout effort of Strasburg Tuesday, Ryan Zimmerman's led comeback Wednesday, and now Livan's steadying hand to guide the rotation.
What's more, something I'm sure Ted will touch on in his next NL East round-up, but the Nationals are still very much alive in this division that has become the new power division as Karl Ravech pointed out in this article for ESPN. Just take a look at the action in the division tonight, for example. Jon Niese for the Mets pitched the organization's 25th one-hit complete game shutout to guide the team past the Padres. Josh Johnson and Roy Halladay locked up in the definition of the term pitcher's duel, but Johnson got the best of the Phils, winning 2-0. Finally, the Braves had a fun one in Arizona, but came away the victors 11-7.
You're now looking at the only division in baseball that boasts five teams with at least 29 victories. The difference between the first place Braves and the last place Marlins sits at 5.5 games, with the Phillies, Mets and Nationals taking ranking in between. To put that in perspective, every other division in baseball has at least one team 9 games or further behind first.
Furthermore, while each team has definite strengths, from the Mets home field advantage to the vaunted Phillies line-up, each team has equally glaring deficiencies. This will turn out to be the most exciting division race in baseball, and the race for patching holes at the trade deadline will be equally as entertaining.
Basically, sit tight folks. We're all in for one hell of a ride this summer. The Nationals begin the second string of interleague play tomorrow night in Cleveland, taking on the putrid Indians. Luis Atilano (5-2, 4.24) squares off with Jake Westbrook (3-3, 4.84).