GAME IN A NUTSHELL: With a long day of baseball staring them in the face, the Nationals knew they needed to pour everything they had into the opener of today's doubleheader at Wrigley Field, lest they drop their third straight to the Cubs (fourth straight overall) and face the daunting task of needing to beat Jeff Samardzija in the nightcap to avoid a sweep.
So the NL East leaders took the field and did just that, flexing their muscles a bit against the NL Central cellar dwellers. Gio Gonzalez was brilliant over seven scoreless innings, scattering two hits and two walks while striking out seven and keeping his pitch count down. Denard Span made a pair of brilliant plays in center field to account for all three outs in the fourth. And the lineup came through in a couple of big spots late against rookie right-hander Dallas Beeder and the Cubs bullpen.
Tyler Clippard and Rafael Soriano then finished off this shutout victory, snapping the Nationals' brief losing streak and putting them in position to salvage a 4-game series split later tonight as the season's first half comes to an end.
HITTING HIGHLIGHT: How did the Nationals score their three runs today? Thanks to the top of the lineup. Span and Anthony Rendon each reached base three times, and though Span was picked off in the top of the sixth, that mistake didn't wind up costing his team a whole lot. Rendon delivered big once again, roping a double down the left-field line in the sixth (and ultimately scoring thanks to a passed ball and a wild pitch) and then lining a triple to the gap in right-center to score Span in the seventh. Rendon now has 45 RBI through 80 games, putting him on pace for slightly more than 90 over the full season. For a guy batting second most days, that's mighty impressive.
PITCHING HIGHLIGHT: All things considered, what a performance by Gonzalez. Though he threw six scoreless innings against the Brewers on Monday, his fastball command and velocity were all over the place, leading to a whopping pitch count of 114. The results were the same this time, but the process was significantly better. Gonzalez tossed seven scoreless innings on only 99 pitches. The key: Excellent fastball command. His velocity was up a few notches, as well, topping out at 93 mph. So that's now 13 consecutive scoreless innings from the left-hander, who over his last two starts has lowered his ERA from 4.85 to 3.93.
KEY STAT: This was the first time the Nationals shut out the Cubs in 31 games at Wrigley Field since 2005.
UP NEXT: Don't stray too far, because these two teams will be right back on the field at 7:15 p.m. EDT for the nightcap. Blake Treinen returns from Class AAA Syracuse to start for the Nationals, with ace Jeff Samardzija on the hill for the Cubs. Remember, this game is on Fox, but only in parts of the country. Here's the broadcast coverage map.