Washington Nationals Jump Ahead Early, Beat Milwaukee Brewers, 8-3

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 24, 2009

In a clubhouse filled with newcomers and squatters, men whose careers are young and might never grow old, Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn represent the establishment. Their lockers stand back-to-back, separated only by an empty stall with a mini-fridge, and you don't bring a fridge to work unless you plan on staying for a while. There they are, way in the back, away from the field exit, the coaches' corridor, the clubhouse kitchen and the foot traffic. Choice real estate. And make no mistake: Their permanence, and prominence, reaches beyond the clubhouse.

Almost every game, Zimmerman bats third, Dunn bats fourth. Together, the pair anchors the Washington Nationals' lineup, forming one of the most imposing 3-4 combos in baseball. Sometimes, as happened Sunday, they help stop a losing streak. The Nationals don't quite have a stopper, so Zimmerman and Dunn remain the best source of stability. Washington snapped its five-game skid Sunday for numerous reasons -- it's never just a two-man show -- but in the end, the Nationals' 8-3 victory over Milwaukee at Nationals Park felt like an alpha performance.

Zimmerman and Dunn combined for two homers, four hits, three runs, four RBI and two walks. Both have home run totals (26 for Zimmerman, 33 for Dunn) that rank among the top 10 in the National League. If both players stick with their paces, Zimmerman will finish the year with 34 home runs, Dunn will finish with 43, and Washington will walk away from its season having identified its rock-solid pillars.

"Just really professional hitters," interim manager Jim Riggleman said.

"We feel good about the progress of both of them, Zim especially," General Manager Mike Rizzo said. "The addition of Dunn, he's come as advertised -- or better than advertised, really. Zim, this is his natural progression. Players like him have three steady seasons and then a breakout season, and we expect more of the same now from him down the road."

Perhaps Washington would have won this game without either. Craig Stammen, turning in Washington's first quality start since Aug. 15, pitched into the seventh and limited the dangerous Brewers to five hits. The Nationals scored with ingenuity (a second-inning suicide squeeze), charity (three unearned runs following an error by Alcides Escobar) and secondary characters (such as Ronnie Belliard, who stroked a key two-out, two-run single in the first).

The muscle of this victory, though, was supplied by Washington's most reliable tandem. And yes, only this year has it become apparent. At the start of the season, Zimmerman was still offering mixed messages about his ability to reach an all-star level. And Dunn, who joined as a free agent, was criticized from some corners of the industry as a passionless slugger with a low average. Player projections should be taken with the full daily dose of salt, but it's worth noting that statistical savant Bill James predicted a .290-20 homer year for Zimmerman and a .238-35 homer year for Dunn.

The pleasant developments: Zimmerman has hit for power, and Dunn has hit for average.

"I think more than anything else they've both fed off of each other," hitting coach Rick Eckstein said. "The way these guys talk to one another, the way they push one another, there are a lot of good things happening."

Milwaukee encouraged the power onslaught by sending Manny Parra to the mound. Parra, among pitchers with at least 100 innings this year, has the highest ERA in baseball. And here, another 3 1/3 ineffective innings hiked the ERA from 6.33 to 6.54. In the third, with Washington already up 5-1, Dunn took a long, looping swing at a Parra 1-1 curveball and teed it into the second deck in right field. Zimmerman, in the fourth, showed off his gap power by riding a full-count change-up over the fence in right-center. When Zimmerman touched home, he slapped hands with Dunn; the Nationals had an 8-1 lead and the rout was on.

"Any time the starting pitcher goes into the seventh inning and we can score that many runs I'll take our chances," Zimmerman said.

The Nationals have hit 121 homers this year -- middle-of-the-pack power. But that's an improvement from last year, when they hit just 117 and no single player topped 14. In 2008, with Zimmerman ailing from a shoulder injury and Dunn still months from signing as a free agent, the middle of Washington's order was a wreck. The Nationals used nine cleanup hitters, including Austin Kearns, Lastings Milledge, Aaron Boone, Dmitri Young, Kory Casto and Ryan Langerhans. The group combined for 16 home runs, worst in baseball.

The 3-4 lineup improvement has represented Washington's greatest leap. Zimmerman has hit third in 113 of Washington's 124 games. Dunn has hit fourth 114 times. When Rizzo was named permanent general manager earlier this week, he mentioned his preference for team-building: speed up the middle, power at the corners.

Some of what he prefers he already has.

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