Nationals happily take ugly win in Chicago

Nationals happily take ugly win in Chicago
August 21, 2013, 1:45 am
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CHICAGO — Very little about the Nationals' 4-1 victory over the Cubs Tuesday night was aesthetically pleasing. Dan Haren, feeling a bit off after making a surprise relief appearance only three days earlier, gutted his way through six innings on the mound. Ian Desmond and Ryan Zimmerman committed errors on routine plays. Baserunning mistakes were made. Rafael Soriano gave up yet another ninth-inning homer.

And then there was the Nationals' lineup, which merely put 21 men on base over nine innings, somehow managing to push only four of them across the plate. Two of them in the top of the ninth.

"Some of the ways we're finding ways to get out is unbelievable," Desmond said. "It's bound to change at some point. It did in the ninth, and hopefully we can continue to do that and hopefully it carries over."

There were no complaints from the Nationals clubhouse after this one, though. Wins have become too rare for this team, so they'll gladly take them however they can.

If nothing else, the Nationals know right now they can count on Haren to give them a chance to win every time he takes the mound, a statement that would have sounded ludicrous only six weeks ago but has held true since.

Reinvigorated since a brief stint on the disabled list in late June, Haren has dramatically morphed into one of the NL's most-effective pitchers. With six innings of one-run ball on Tuesday, he improved to 4-2 with a 2.16 ERA over his last nine appearances.

"He's shown he's a quality pitcher," manager Davey Johnson said. "I think the adjustment to the new league and feeling better with his arm, having some difficulty with it [hurt him], but he's bounced back and pitched great."

Haren has also shown surprising versatility, summoned to close out Saturday night's 15-inning win in Atlanta and notch the first save of his 11-year career.

Still feeling some effects from that outing only three nights earlier, Haren admittedly wasn't in peak form when he took the mound Tuesday at Wrigley Field.

"Physically, I felt fine," he said. "It was just tough to get loose. Obviously, I wasn't 100 percent sharp coming out of the gates, but luckily I kind of loosened up as the game was going."

With some guidance from catcher Wilson Ramos, who changed up his pitching sequences to keep the Cubs hitters off-balance, Haren gutted his way through six innings, allowing only Donnie Murphy's solo homer in the fourth.

Seemingly a lost cause at midseason with a 4-9 record and 6.15 ERA, Haren has not only resurrected his season but perhaps his career as well. He may not command another $13 million contract like he got from the Nationals last winter, but he should command interest from several clubs who believe he can pick up where he's leaving off at season's end.

"As good as I've pitched the last month or so, I still have an ERA in the mid-4.00s, the high-4.00s [actually, 4.64]," he said. "So that kind of tells you how bad I was. To think about next year, I just really haven't thought about it. I really want to keep this rolling. I think I have about seven more starts left. I just want to make the most of those."

Haren has benefited from some run support in recent weeks, and he benefited again on Tuesday, though it was a chore for the Nationals to push across their four runs.

They had countless opportunities, putting at least two men on base in five separate innings and 21 total men on base. But aside from the random RBI double by Zimmerman or single by Desmond, they simply couldn't deliver at the right moments.

The low point: The Nationals had runners on second and third with nobody out in the top of the second, then saw Scott Hairston, Haren and Bryce Harper make three straight outs hitting the ball a total of 25 feet.

"Don't even go there," Johnson said laughing when asked about the run-scoring opportunities. "I struggled through that one. We were lucky to get two runs in the last inning. What'd we have, [14] hits? We had so many opportunities. The one that killed me was where Hairston hit a ball six inches in front of home plate with runners at second and third. That's the way we're going."

Frustrating as it was, the Nationals did manage to win Tuesday night. And given how few times they've been able to celebrate at the center of the diamond, they weren't so much concerned with style points this time.

"Obviously we're getting guys on base, so that part of it's not frustrating," Denard Span said. "The part where we can't get them in is frustrating. The name of the game is scoring runs. We had opportunities earlier in the game to blow the game wide open and we didn't do it. Thank god we were able to get some more opportunities later in the game and give us a few more insurance runs going into the ninth inning."