Nats salvage trip, now ready for Harper's return

Nats salvage trip, now ready for Harper's return
June 29, 2014, 12:30 am
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CHICAGO — Forget who you’re playing or what the circumstances suggest, a doubleheader sweep is no sure thing. Now play that doubleheader at the end of a 7-game road trip, in sweltering humidity interrupted only by a 55-minute downpour, needing to win both ends of the twinbill to salvage a series split and maintain your spot tied atop the division.

So don’t underestimate what the Nationals did over the course of 10 hours at Wrigley Field on Saturday: a 3-0 victory over the Cubs in the opener, then a 7-2 thumping of the home team in the nightcap.

“They’re never easy,” said Adam LaRoche, who drove in three runs while playing all 18 innings. “You suck it up, work through it. I think it’s tougher on a manager than anybody, trying to figure out who needs a day [off], who’s barking, how the bullpen is. But it’s a good way to end a series here that we had a pretty poor start to those first two games. It was nice to get these two today.”

Indeed, the Nationals left town in a much better mood than they would have had they split the first scheduled doubleheader at Wrigley Field in 31 years — the byproduct of Sunday’s Chicago Pride Parade in the neighborhood — or, even worse, had they been swept.

They’ll enjoy a highly unusual Sunday off, then open an 8-game homestand with their last (and perhaps most-important) long-awaited reinforcement coming off the disabled list: Bryce Harper. The 21-year-old slugger, out since April 26 with a torn thumb ligament, is on track to return Monday night against the Rockies, providing a huge boost to a Nationals club that to this point has been able to field its full Opening Day lineup this season for a grand total of seven innings.

Oh, and did you hear what Harper did during Saturday night’s rehab appearance with Class AA Harrisburg at Akron?

“I did,” manager Matt Williams said with a smile. “He hit into a double play. … He also did a couple other things.”

Actually, Harper did three other things. All three were home runs.

Harper’s looming return will boost the Nationals’ lineup while also forcing Williams to make some tough decisions about playing time (and playing position) for several key regulars. Saturday’s doubleheader, meanwhile, forced him to make some more tough choices, but the rookie manager navigated his way through it with no problems.

It certainly helped when Gio Gonzalez churned out seven scoreless innings in the opener, setting the tone for the entire day. The left-hander was coming off a Monday start in Milwaukee in which he tossed six shutout innings, but that night he needed 114 pitches to do it. This time, he pounded the strike zone from the very start, saw his fastball velocity go up a notch or two and needed only 99 pitches to complete seven innings and earn the win.

“From the last start to this start, it’s just building confidence and velocity,” said Gonzalez, who has now made three starts since his DL stint for shoulder inflammation. “It shows it’s just building strength. Obviously coming from the DL and trying to come back, it’s just going to be a process. It’s not going to happen overnight. But it’s good to see that little-by-little, using the fastball and the changeup at the same time, it’s good to know that when you need them, they’ll be there.”

Gonzalez was aided by some spectacular defense in the fourth inning, all of it provided by Denard Span. The center field made a leaping, spinning catch at the ivy-covered brick wall for one out, then pulled off a double play moments later by charging in to catch a sinking liner and then throwing off-balance to first base in one continuous motion.

“You really can’t have good mechanics on a throw like that,” he said. “You’re running full speed. It’s just about the transfer. You see infielders with quick hands. It’s about trying to catch the ball and trying to get rid of it as fast as possible.”

For the nightcap, the Nationals utilized MLB’s allowance of a 1-day, 26th man call-up from the minors and handed the ball to Blake Treinen. The rookie right-hander had already flashed his impressive stuff in four previous starts, but he had yet to be given enough run support to emerge with a win.

This time, Treinen not only gutted out five solid innings — coming back to pitch after the 55-minute rain delay — but he also benefited from his teammates’ 6-run barrage on Cubs ace Jeff Samardzija. Thus, there was a ball waiting for him at his locker, signifying his first career win.

Treinen was immediately optioned back to Class AAA Syracuse, but he knows he’ll be summoned again at some point.

“I know my role this year,” he said. “It’s kind of doing whatever they ask me to do at any given day. And I’m OK with that. Ideally, everybody wants to [be here] long-term. But right now, I understand my role is to help the team out when they need it. And I’m OK with that.”

Besides, who wasn’t in a good mood at the end of a long day that included not one, but two victories to wrap up an eventful road trip.

“It’s nice to win the last two,” Williams said. “It started out well, and then the middle part was not so good. To come back and win, generally it’s difficult to sweep a doubleheader anyway. So it’s nice to end it on that note.”