By Gene Wang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 11, 2010; D01
The heart of the order for the Washington Nationals entered Thursday night's game against Pittsburgh on a tear, and thanks again to that part of the lineup as well as a functional outing from starter Liván Hernández, the team finally can claim a series sweep this season.
In its 4-2 victory before 21,767 at Nationals Park, Washington became the last team in the major leagues to register a series sweep. Granted it came against the Pirates, owners of the lowest winning percentage in the National League, but that hardly mattered in the clubhouse following a win that brought the Nationals within a game of .500.
"That had not even occurred to me," Manager Jim Riggleman said of the Nationals' first series sweep. "We're just trying to win the ballgame. It felt like we've won a few in a row a couple of times. I guess it was two different series when that was happening, but you just try to win the game. Our guys battled. We didn't play real smart, but we played hard."
The Nationals (30-31) got home runs in the fourth inning from Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham, and Hernández worked six innings, allowing two earned runs on five hits in improving to 5-3. After throwing 98 pitches, Hernández turned over the proceedings to the bullpen to start the seventh, and it did not disappoint, permitting three runners to reach base the rest of the way.
Washington had been sailing along comfortably for the first five innings after building a 3-0 lead. The Nationals' third run came when cleanup hitter Ryan Zimmerman hit a sharp grounder to third and beat a low throw from Andy LaRoche. The ball then got away from first baseman Ryan Doumit, allowing Dunn, who earlier had singled, to come home. Zimmerman, meantime, moved to second on what was scored a single and an error for LaRoche.
Circumstances became somewhat uncomfortable for the Nationals in the sixth, when the Pirates (23-37) sent seven batters to the plate en route to scoring twice. Pittsburgh's half of the inning began with a double from starting pitcher Zach Duke, who came home when leadoff man José Tábata followed with a double. Tábata moved to third on Neil Walker's single and scored on Andrew McCutchen's sacrifice fly to right field.
But Hernández settled down thereafter, getting Doumit to fly out to left and then striking out Bobby Crosby. In recording his fifth win, Hernández ended a string of six respectable performances without a victory. Hernández had an ERA of 3.44 in those previous six outings and had walked just 10 hitters.
"I talked to the guys in the shower and said, 'Wow,' " Hernández said of his first win in a more than a month. "One month and five days I don't win a game. It's tough, but I'll take it."
On this night, Hernández had the benefit of pitching with the lead courtesy of another robust showing from the Nos. 3, 4 and 5 hitters, who over the first two games of the series combined for 11 hits, 8 runs, 6 RBI and 4 homers. Dunn's blast that landed in the Nationals' bullpen in right field was his team-leading 13th and the third straight game in which he has homered. Willingham then sent a 3-2 offering over the wall in left-center for his 12th of the season and second in three games.
"We kind of had the long ball working for this series," Dunn said.
The Nationals had several more opportunities to add to their total but squandered them in the sixth and seventh innings. In the sixth, Iván Rodríguez led off with a walk before Mike Morse and Roger Bernadina followed with consecutive singles to load the bases with none out. That sequence chased Duke (3-7) from the game, and Evan Meek sauntered to the mound, responsible for trying to keep the game within reach.
Meek did just that. First he got pinch hitter Willie Harris to lineout to Walker at second, who quickly threw to shortstop Crosby at second to double up Morse. Then Meek induced Cristian Guzmán into a groundout to second to end the inning and the threat.
The Nationals did get an insurance run in the eighth when Morse blasted his first homer of the season over the center field wall. Morse was in the lineup because Bernadina, the regular right fielder, had moved to center to give starter Njyer Morgan what was supposed to be a day of rest. Morgan instead wound up pinch hitting for reliever Sean Burnett (two innings, no runs, two hits, no walks, one strikeout) in the eighth and flied out to center.
Morgan remained in the game in center for the ninth, and Bernadina shifted to right in back of reliever Tyler Clippard, whose normal role is to set up closer Matt Capps. But Clippard did just fine finishing off the Pirates, including striking out pinch hitter Ryan Church looking to end the game, to record his first career save.
Clippard's performance capped a series in which the bullpen did not surrender a run in 10 1/3 innings and a homestand during which the Nationals went 4-2.
"We played really good this homestand," Clippard said. "We could have easily had a 6-0 record here. We ended up on a good note, and we're trying to take that into the road trip and do the same thing against Cleveland and Detroit."