By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 8, 2010; D01
Adam Dunn hopped up the first two steps of the Washington Nationals' dugout, chomping a piece of gum and holding his helmet in his right hand. Only 10 active players have launched more home runs than Dunn, but none of those rockets had necessitated a moment quite like this. Dunn lifted the helmet, waved it over his head and pumped his fist.
The brave, sweltering 13,762 fans at Nationals Park had coaxed Dunn out of the home dugout so they could applaud the final act of his historic night. In a 7-6 victory over the San Diego Padres on Wednesday night, Dunn, with the first such game of his 10-year career, became the first player to hit three home runs in a game at Nationals Park.
After the third home run, Dunn blew a bubble while circling first base. He accepted the milestone with his typically carefree demeanor. He was asked if knowing he had two home runs altered his approach in his final at-bat, in the eighth inning. "I don't have an approach to change, man," Dunn said. "That's all I got."
By joining Alfonso Soriano as the only Nationals players to hit three home runs in a game, Dunn reminded the franchise how forceful he can be. The trio gave him 20 home runs, tied for second in the National League with Albert Pujols behind Joey Votto.
After the game, Ryan Zimmerman reiterated how important he believes Dunn -- and left fielder Josh Willingham -- could be for the organization's future.
"One of the hardest things to find on a team is a 3-4-5," Zimmerman said. "Obviously, he's one of the best four hitters in the game, has been for the last five or six years. He's a very, very important player to this team in what we do offensively, not only in the field but in the clubhouse, as far as helping out the young guys.
"We understand people have to do their job. Personally, I think if we get rid of a couple of those guys, we're going to maybe take a step backward instead of forward. I don't think we're that far away. It's really, really hard to find a 3-4-5. Look at what we've done for the past two years. We enjoy playing together, and we kind of push each other. It's a good group we have. It would be bad if we broke it up, I think.
"I think they already know what I think," Zimmerman said. Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo and President Stan Kasten "are very smart guys. They've done a great job so far."
On Wednesday, the Nationals needed each of Dunn's three home runs -- a three-shot blast to the Red Porch seats in the first that put the Nationals up 4-1 before making their first out, a solo homer to roughly the same spot to lead off the third, and a moon shot into the first rows over the scoreboard in right-center in the eighth -- to hold off the Padres, who scored four runs in the final three innings. They pushed the tying run to third base in the ninth before Matt Capps extricated himself by inducing a groundball to first by Chase Headley.
Dunn had not hit a home run in his last 46 at-bats, a typical drought for most players, an uncommon dry spell for him. In the first, Dunn walked to the plate with two men on. Jon Garland, whom the Nationals pursued this winter in free agency, tossed a 1-0 change-up, and Dunn belted it to center field, giving the Nationals a three-run lead.
Garland yielded a double to Josh Willingham before recording the first out, but the Nationals did not score again until Dunn led off the third inning. This time he swung at the first pitch Garland threw, a 92-mph sinker, and crunched it to center again. Dunn has hit more home runs on the first pitch of an at-bat than any other count in his career, and this year three of his 20 homers have come on the first pitch.
In the eighth, after Drew Storen allowed multiple runs in an appearance for the first time in his career, Dunn struck again and provided a necessary slice of insurance. Left-hander Joe Thatcher pitched around Dunn with slow curves and change-ups until he spun a 77-mph curve on 2-2 pitch. Dunn lofted the ball high into the hazy sky and watched the ball for a moment before he started jogging after it landed in the seats.
"It's pretty cool to hit three homers," Dunn said. "I don't feel any different than I have in the past. I just got a pitch to hit, and I didn't miss it."
Dunn's home runs had sealed the Nationals' victory, even on a shaky night for the Nationals. They had won their fourth game this homestand. Manager Jim Riggleman has spoken to his team about the need to convince the front office not to break up their team with their play. On Wednesday, Dunn provided the strongest argument yet.
"Who doesn't need a 40-home run guy, a 100-RBI guy?" Willingham said. "He's pretty invaluable to the team.
"I don't know what's going through the front office's minds. That's not really my concern. But I would like for us to continue to play well and that way we don't have to worry about it."