CHICAGO The closest thing to a sure thing in baseball these days is a top-flight pitcher facing the Washington Nationals.
The Nationals, whose offensive struggles have been well documented since about the third day of the season, have repeatedly been rendered helpless by some of the majors' best hurlers.
They have been shut out by Brandon Webb, CC Sabathia, Ben Sheets and Tim Hudson. They have been blown away by John Smoltz and Carlos Zambrano. And they have flailed away at Dan Haren, Derek Lowe and, on Sunday, Rich Harden.
Harden, looking more and more like a brilliant midseason pickup by the Cubs, offered his latest brilliant effort at Wrigley Field, holding Washington to two hits while striking out 11 during Chicago's convincing 6-1 victory.
It was just another dominant pitching performance against the youthful Nationals in a season loaded with similar efforts.
"We've faced a lot of them," said manager Manny Acta, whose club has lost 14 of 16. "Those guys are not going to go away. And I think from now on, these guys know that they're going to have to face those guys year in and year out, and they're going to have to be prepared and make adjustments against them."
The adjustments have been few and far between, particularly over a summer in which Washington has defeated only four starting pitchers who entered with winning records: Baltimore's Daniel Cabrera (5-3 on June 27), Florida's Mark Hendrickson (7-6 on July 1), Atlanta's Jair Jurrjens (8-5 on July 19) and Colorado's Aaron Cook (13-7 on Aug. 4).
Try as they might to go into those games feeling confident about their chances, the Nationals know deep down how difficult it is to beat those kind of upper-echelon pitchers given the current makeup of their lineup.
"As a hitter, it's tough," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "You just have to hope that your pitcher matches up and you can somehow scrape out a couple runs. Because if they're on, it's tough to get anything going."
Harden (4-1 with a 1.47 ERA since coming to the Cubs from Oakland last month) was absolutely on from the moment he took the mound Sunday. With a lethal combination of a four-seam fastball that reaches the mid-90s and a two-seamer that comes in around 89 mph and darts down and in on right-handed hitters, he struck out four of the first six batters he faced.
Only two Nationals players reached safely during the right-hander's seven innings of work: Austin Kearns, who homered just inside the left-field foul pole in the third, and Ronnie Belliard, who singled in the fifth.
By the time he departed for a pinch hitter, Harden had recorded 11 strikeouts without issuing a walk in his first career start against Washington.
"The good pitchers are good for a good reason," said Zimmerman, who went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts. "It doesn't matter how many times you see them. You know it's going to be a tough day and you're going to have to battle. And a lot of times when they have their good stuff, it's pretty hard."
The Nationals didn't get a comparable pitching effort from their staff - not that many teams would. Starter Jason Bergmann served up a pair of homers in the second inning to give the Cubs an early lead, and reliever Steven Shell was greeted rudely in the seventh by Kosuke Fukudome, who drilled a two-run shot to right.
Washington did mount one last-gasp rally in the eighth, loading the bases with two outs against reliever Carlos Marmol. But Cristian Guzman, after working the count full, was called out by plate umpire Angel Hernandez on a slider.
"It was inside," Guzman said. "Look at the video. It was inside. But you know, he made a mistake. Everybody makes mistakes. It's OK."
So the Nationals - who took some solace in having split the season series with Chicago (owner of the NL's best record) - headed back to the District for a welcome, nine-game homestand.
Or perhaps not so welcome. Awaiting the majors' worst-hitting club at Nationals Park are the Los Angeles Dodgers, who will send Lowe, 353-game winner Greg Maddux and rookie phenom Clayton Kershaw to the mound.
Imagine how excited the Nationals are about that.