Nationals sweep Cubs, reach midway mark tied for first in the NL East at 43-38

A long and unusual day at Wrigley Field offered the Washington Nationals a chance for reflection. After sweeping Saturday’s rare doubleheader, the first scheduled one at this stadium in more than three decades, the Nationals officially reached the midpoint of their season. And through 81 games, the Nationals are 43-38 and tied for first place in the National League East, an accomplishment given all that has transpired through the season’s first three months.

They have endured injuries to every unit of the team except the bullpen. The opening day lineup lasted seven innings. Five of their eight regular hitters have landed on the disabled list at some point this season, and the remaining injured player, Bryce Harper, is expected to return Monday. Their starting rotation wasn’t whole until early May when Doug Fister made his season debut, but two weeks later it lost Gio Gonzalez for a month and he has since returned.

Gonzalez has hit his stride following his shoulder injury and powered the Nationals to a 3-0 win over the Chicago Cubs in the doubleheader’s first game with seven scoreless innings that snapped the team’s three-game losing streak. Blake Treinen made a spot start in the second game, and the offense came to life, boosting the rookie to his first major league win, a rain-interrupted 7-2 victory.

The Nationals completed an exhausting seven-game road trip with the first scheduled doubleheader at Wrigley Field since 1983. Because of a pride parade in the same neighborhood Sunday, the two teams agreed long ago to play two games Saturday to alleviate traffic. Before a rare Sunday off-day, the Nationals had to play two games in one day, but they would return home happy and still in first place.

“I like our position in the standings and where our team is at, for the most part,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “There’s always little things here and there we can tighten up. I like how we’re fighting back in some of these close games or games we’re losing.”

At this point in their disappointing 2013, the Nationals sat at 41-40 and trailed the Atlanta Braves by 61 / 2 games. After Saturday’s game, they shared the same record as their fiercest rival, the Braves. Despite the injuries and up-and-down play, the biggest difference between last season and this season is the Braves’ play. The Nationals are only two games better than 2013 at this point but are in better standing in the division.

“For me, certainly not where we’d like to be,” Williams said of the Nationals’ play before Saturday’s games. “Also not where we could be with all that’s gone on. I think we’ve got a group of guys that continue to battle hard every day. They use nothing as an excuse and play. Would we like to be better than we are? Of course. Everybody would. But we are where we’re at. We have to look at, after today, what we do moving forward.”

The Nationals have reached this point without any wild production from any one player. Their starting rotation has settled into a groove, and the bullpen has been the best in baseball by some measures. Their offense has been up and down all year, the byproduct of so many injuries. They hope to be whole again soon, and perhaps then they can truly be evaluated.

“I think we’ve done a good job,” catcher Wilson Ramos said. “Our pitching has responded really well. We’ve done a good job with our pitching. We’ve hit well, not all games, but doing small things to win games. I think that’s what we need to do throughout the season. We need to keep doing the small things to win games.”

To start the day, Gonzalez carried the Nationals with his stellar pitching. He relied on location and a good mix of off-speed pitches to run his scoreless innings streak to 13. With help from Tyler Clippard and closer Rafael Soriano, the Nationals twirled their first shutout of the Cubs at Wrigley Field.

The Nationals have kept an eye on Gonzalez’s velocity since his return from the disabled list with shoulder inflammation. Against the Cubs, his third start back, Gonzalez’s velocity was a tad bit faster than the previous start and his command was better. His first pitch was 88 mph, but by the fourth inning he was throwing 91 and 92 mph. He topped out at 94 mph on the stadium radar gun.

“From the last start to this start, it’s just building confidence and velocity,” Gonzalez said. “It was good to see some high numbers in velocity. It shows it’s just building strength.”

The difference for Gonzalez again was his command and secondary stuff. Gonzalez fired a heavy dose of change-ups and curveballs, his feel for both pitches improving with each start. He struck out seven and walked only two. He was efficient, too; he exited the game at 99 pitches and with a 1-0 lead.

Gonzalez was aided by Denard Span’s standout defense and an overturned replay call in the sixth inning. In the fourth, Span made a nifty and difficult running catch and avoided slamming into the ivy-covered brick wall. Span then turned a double play to end the inning when he raced in, caught a shallow ball and, in one motion, fired a bullet to first base.

“It’s gold out there,” Williams said of Span’s play.

Thanks to Span, Rendon and LaRoche, the Nationals got more breathing room in the eighth inning. Span singled with one out, and Rendon rocketed an RBI triple. LaRoche hit a sacrifice fly that added yet another important insurance run en route to the victory.

The Nationals’ winning formula continued in the second game. Called up for only Saturday’s start thanks to the 26th man rule for doubleheaders, Treinen used his high-octane sinker to plow through the Cubs’ lineup for five innings. He allowed two runs, both on a home run by Luis Valbuena in the fourth inning.

“It was kind of a bizarre game with the rain delay,” Treinen said. “I’m glad I was just able to go five, I guess. It feels great.”

The runs allowed mattered little with the power surge by the Nationals against the Cubs’ best starter. The Nationals chipped away at Jeff Samardzija with a LaRoche home run in the second inning and Rendon’s sacrifice fly in the third.

But after a 55-minute delay, the Nationals clobbered Samardzija to snap a 2-2 tie. In only his third game back from the disabled list, Ramos smashed a solo shot to center field. Kevin Frandsen’s single drove in Nate McLouth, who started the second game in center for a resting Span. Jayson Werth added an RBI single, and an error by Anthony Rizzo made it 6-2. LaRoche tacked on an RBI single in the ninth.

The Nationals’ bullpen, led by Xavier Cedeno and Ross Detwiler, shut down the Cubs the rest of the game. The Nationals split their series with the Cubs, ensuring they reached the midpoint of their season in better shape than last year. Now the second half begins.

James Wagner joined the Post in August 2010 and, prior to covering the Nationals, covered high school sports across the region.
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