Nationals 4, Cubs 2
-- Just as Aramis Ramirez reached first base Saturday afternoon, the ball fell into the glove of shortstop Jamey Carroll, a high popup that Ramirez ran out because that's what baseball players are taught to do. But as Carroll and his Washington Nationals teammates ran off the field, clinging to a two-run lead after eight innings, Ramirez displayed the emotion the rest of the National League must feel about the Nationals. He kicked at the dirt, a show of frustration that looks as if it may reappear, time and again, over the course of this summer.
Throughout the stands at Wrigley Field, there was frustration after the Chicago Cubs allowed the Nationals all of five hits, yet lost, 4-2. There was frustration that the Cubs pushed Nationals starter Tony Armas Jr. from the game in the sixth inning, yet allowed four Washington relievers to completely close them down, retiring the final 10 Chicago hitters in order. There was frustration that a starting lineup consisting of five backups won its fifth game in a row.
Go ahead. Kick the dirt.
"We've got to change something," Cubs Manager Dusty Baker said.
The Nationals, of course, want to change nothing about any of it. So what if their scoring plays -- other than Jose Guillen's 17th homer of the year -- weren't terribly sexy? Sacrifice flies from Wil Cordero and Junior Spivey and a two-out single up the middle from Gary Bennett count, too.
The Cubs, and the rest of the league, just might look at that list of characters and say, "Who?" The Nationals don't care.
"The egos are aside," said Bennett, who spelled starting catcher Brian Schneider. "There's no clashing in this clubhouse. If we get a win, and Guillen goes 0 for 4, he's happy. If we get a win, and Vinny [Castilla] goes 0 for 4, he's happy. . . .
"There's other teams I've been on in the past, we'd get a win, and maybe the big dog ain't producing, and he's kind of moping a little bit. And in here, man, everybody's pulling for each other."
So as a season-high crowd of 40,488 quietly filed out of Wrigley Field, they appeared stunned. When the rosters are announced for the All-Star Game on Sunday evening, the Nationals, who now lead the National League East by a season-high 51/2 games, likely will have just two selections, ace Livan Hernandez and closer Chad Cordero. Washington won Saturday without three-quarters of its starting infield -- first baseman Nick Johnson was out for the fifth straight game because of a bad heel, second baseman Jose Vidro was still on a rehabilitation assignment after missing two months because of an injured ankle, and shortstop Cristian Guzman was resting a strained hamstring.
"We'll do it any way we have to," Manager Frank Robinson said.
On Saturday, they did it by squeezing out those four runs against Cubs starter Jerome Williams, withstanding the continued offensive assault of Cubs first baseman Derrek Lee -- who went 3 for 4 with his 25th homer and a triple -- and by using the bullpen combination of Gary Majewski, Joey Eischen, Hector Carrasco and Cordero, who picked up his 29th save.
A formula for frustration.
"Winning's a cancer, just the same as losing is," Eischen said. "Right now, we don't . . . worry about what's going to happen. We kind of know we're going to win, and we just kind of let things fall into place right now. That's what good teams do."
After Robinson removed Armas (4-4) in the bottom of the sixth with a 2-0 count on Ramirez, the Nationals showed off one reason they are a good team: their bullpen. Majewski, who has struggled lately, threw a first-pitch slider to Ramirez, who hammered it on a line toward first. Cordero deftly jumped to his right, snared the ball and doubled Jeromy Burnitz off first. Majewski then allowed a single and a walk before getting a fly ball to end the inning.
That was it for the Cubs. Eischen, making his first big league appearance since fracturing his right arm on May 1, pitched a 1-2-3 seventh that included a popup and two strikeouts. Carrasco, pitching in a key spot for the third straight day, ended his perfect eighth by getting Ramirez to pop out to Carroll, leading to the kick at the dirt. And Cordero needed only six pitches to set down the Cubs in the ninth, the 26th consecutive time he has converted a save opportunity.
"I try not to think about it too much," Cordero said. "When you think about it is when you start to mess up."
Right now, the Nationals are a long way from messing up. They're 18 games over .500. They have eight wins in their last nine games, the last of which assured they would win a series for the eighth time in nine tries. And they possess the attitude of a first-place team that enjoys looking across at the other dugout and seeing the look of disbelief on those forlorn faces.
"We put ourselves in position to have a real good year -- and beyond," Bennett said. "If we take care of what we have to take care of, we don't have to worry about who's behind us."