The chants from the small crowd at Nationals Park came early and loud on Wednesday night. By the third inning, Washington Nationals starter Gio Gonzalez was cruising through the Chicago Cubs’ lineup, his dominance already obvious, and the chant was “Let’s go, Gio!” In the bottom of the same inning, the Nationals continued their annihilation of Cubs pitchers, and by the third home run of the frame, fans erupted with amazement.
Less than an hour into the game, the supremacy was clear to everyone present, including the opposing manager who was ejected before the rout was one-third over. “This is by far the best team that we have played all year,” Cubs Manager Dale Sveum said after the Nationals’ 9-1 win that maintained a 7½-game lead over the Atlanta Braves in the National League East standings. “That’s like an American League lineup, too, with guys that hit the ball a long way, grind at-bats out and take advantage of any mistake that’s thrown.”
Gonzalez was brilliant through seven scoreless innings, striking out nine batters and not allowing a hit until the sixth inning. The offense smashed six home runs, becoming just the third team since 1920 to hit at least that many in consecutive games. Adam LaRoche continued his torrid hitting pace with a 3-for-4 night that included a two-run home run. Rookie Bryce Harper went 2 for 3 and clobbered two home runs for the second time, moving him further into historic company with his parents watching from the stands.
“After about the third or fourth [home run] tonight we were like, ‘What is going on around here?’ ” LaRoche said. “I don’t know. You ride it out. Great timing for us to keep pushing hard and gain some distance.”
But not lost in all the offensive fireworks was the complete dominance of Gonzalez. In moving into a tie for the major league lead with his 18th win, he ran his scoreless streak to 16 innings over two starts. He has struck out 17 batters, walked only three and allowed eight hits in that span.
Gonzalez allowed his first hit in the sixth inning, a single by Cubs second baseman Darwin Barney. Gonzalez fired a 93-mph fastball that Barney drove the ball to the left side of the infield, between shortstop Ian Desmond and diving third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. A sigh of disappointment could be heard from the 21,244 fans in attendance.
Gonzalez met his biggest jam of the nights with two outs in the seventh, his final inning. After a single by Starlin Castro and a double by Welington Castillo, pitching coach Steve McCatty and catcher Kurt Suzuki convened on the mound.
“When Cat came up to me, it was just a little smirk that I had to crack because they were both attacking me,” said Gonzalez, adding that a few inside jokes loosened him up. “And I had to tell them, ‘Hey, back off. Get off my mound already.’ ”
Gonzalez responded with a strikeout on his wicked curveball to end the inning and head into the dugout, his work completed after 93 pitches. Even if Gonzalez hadn’t allowed a hit, Nationals Manager Davey Johnson insisted he would have removed the lefty from the game. Johnson didn’t want Gonzalez following his previous start, in which he threw 119 pitches, with another lengthy outing. “He might have fought me,” Johnson said.
The Nationals’ lineup has been so potent of late that their recent five-game losing streak, during which their bats went nearly silent, is long forgotten. Since then, they have averaged 7.6 runs per game. The lineup has swung well enough that the Cubs couldn’t even stomach facing the eighth hitter in the Nationals’ lineup, Suzuki, intentionally walking him twice.
“It’s just men playing against boys right now,” said Sveum, who was tossed in the third inning for arguing balls and strikes when Michael Morse was batting.
The hitting parade bordered on the absurd. Backup outfielder Roger Bernadina led off the third inning by smashing a home run to center field off Cubs right-hander starter Chris Volstad to give the Nationals a 2-0 lead. Harper then slammed a ball against the back wall of the visitor’s bullpen in left field, waving to his family in the stands as he crossed home plate. Zimmerman singled and LaRoche hammered a ball to left field for a two-run home run, his fourth homer in three games.
LaRoche leads all NL first baseman with 28 home runs and 90 RBI. The smooth-swinging left-hander had reached base nine straight times before he struck out in the seventh inning.
“You get in a streak like, ‘Why can I not do this all the time?’ ” LaRoche said. “It comes so easy at times. You try to file away that feeling and what you’re doing so next time you fall into a rut you can relate back to it.”
Harper added a towering shot into the second deck in right field in the sixth inning, the second multi-home run game of his young career and the second time he has done so in eight days. His 17th long ball moved him into third place all-time for home runs by a teenager in one season, behind Tony Conigliaro’s 24 and Mel Ott’s 18. Asked if it was special to have his family there to witness his two home runs, Harper deadpanned: “They’ve seen it a couple times.”
As if that wasn’t enough, Ian Desmond drilled a ball to deep center field in the eighth for his 21st home run of the season. Danny Espinosa followed with a home run, not too far to the left of where Desmond’s ball landed. The Nationals were running out of places to deposit balls in the stands, another opponent frustrated in their wake.
“Good teams take nothing for granted,” Johnson said. “The cellar guys down at the bottom, they a lot of times have more energy, more to prove by beating the guys at the top. We’ve been down there enough we know what it’s like and we’re not letting up.”