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Nationals' slugging trio sticks close to the heart

By Jorge Castillo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 25, 2010; D06

The Washington Nationals acquired Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham prior to last season hoping they could team with franchise third baseman Ryan Zimmerman to legitimize a Nationals lineup in desperate need of run producers. After a solid 2009 season, the three have done more than their part in 2010 despite the team's recent offensive woes -- and have become close friends in the process.

The laid back Southern trio first found common ground when it came to their love for college football.

"Ryan can't be involved in our rivalries because Virginia stinks, but Josh is from Alabama and I'm from Texas so we had a pretty good one this year," said Dunn, a quarterback at Texas before turning to baseball.

A few months ago, they added fishing to the mix.

"Zim just started fishing," the soft-spoken Willingham said. "Me and Adam got him fishing this spring."

The sluggers' lockers are next to each other in the clubhouse at Nationals Park, and the team requests the same on the road.

"Really?" said Zimmerman, a North Carolina native and former University of Virginia star. "We don't do that. I guess they do that. We don't. We just do whatever. We're laid-back guys; we're pretty much the same kind of guys."

With similar demeanors, the sluggers have flown under the radar. Last season, their first together, the three combined to hit 95 home runs and drive in 272 runs. Thus far, 2010 has been even better.

The three have provided much of the pop for the Nats this season, sitting near the top of the league in several offensive categories, including in the top 11 in OPS (on-base average plus slugging percentage). The three have also combined to hit 43 of the Nationals' 65 home runs through Wednesday and are the only three teammates in the top 12 in the National League in that category.

Dunn is tied for second in the NL with 17 home runs -- 13 of which have been solo homers -- and has 41 RBI, tying him for the team lead with Willingham. The cleanup hitter is second in the league in total bases (147) and first in extra-base hits (39). Batting fifth, Willingham is third in the NL in on-base percentage (.406) and walks (46). And despite having his batting average drop 30 points since June 9, Zimmerman, the No. 3 hitter, is batting .286 with 13 home runs and 37 RBI to go along with his usual Gold Glove defense at third.

"I think we have a lot of pride in being middle-of-the-order guys," Zimmerman said. "We take a lot of initiative to drive in runs and be those guys and we work well together. We hold each other accountable. We're very, I guess, competitive, but we enjoy seeing each other do well."

Yet, with phenom Stephen Strasburg garnering plenty of national attention, Zimmerman and Dunn aren't in the top five in NL All-Star voting at their respective positions, while Willingham sits outside the top fifteen in voting for outfielders. Catcher Iván Rodríguez is the only National in the top five at his position. Voting closes July 2.

"Maybe a little bit," Willingham said when asked if he felt the three sluggers have been overlooked this season. "But I think the more your team wins, the more publicity individuals get."

The Nationals began the season winning and stood at 20-15 on May 15. Since then, the Nats are 13-25 and now find themselves in last place, 9 games behind the NL East-leading Braves.

In June, the team's offense has gone into hiding, wasting some solid efforts from the pitching staff. The Nats have averaged 3.3 runs per game this month, including 2.2 runs over the past nine games. The Nationals are 2-7 over those nine -- the two wins coming against the Royals this week.

"Yeah," Dunn said when asked if the three get frustrated when the team struggles offensively. "That's our job, to drive in runs. When we're not doing that our offense is going to struggle so that's what's been going on this year."

They could use some help, though. In Tuesday night's 4-3 win over the Royals, the middle of the order went a combined 6 for 12 including home runs from Dunn and Willingham, the 100th of his career. Yet both were solo shots -- the only two RBI the three had despite the six hits. In all, the Nationals could muster just four runs on 11 hits and nearly saw closer Matt Capps blow the lead in the ninth.

It got worse Wednesday. Dunn and Zimmerman combined for three of the team's six hits and the Nationals were shut out by a 1-0 score for the second time in five games,.

"It takes a whole team, regardless how good a couple guys are, to succeed," second baseman Adam Kennedy said.

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