- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 26, 2009

CHICAGO | There has been the occasional off-night here and there, one of those ballgames where it seems no one can produce a clutch hit. More often than not, though, the Washington Nationals’ starting lineup has consistently been this club’s saving grace.

With speed at the top, power in the middle and even occasional pop at the bottom, the Nationals lineup’ often stacks up against any other assemblage in baseball. And when it all comes together as it did Tuesday night at windy Wrigley Field, it’s really a sight to see.

With a barrage of hits and three titanic home runs between Josh Willingham and Elijah Dukes, the Nationals pummeled the Chicago Cubs 15-6 to open a nine-game road trip on a high note and send the North Side faithful to the exits early in search of the nearest watering hole.

Willingham homered twice, drove in six runs, reached base five times and scored on each occasion. Dukes clubbed his first career grand slam and added an RBI double to help the Nationals match their previous record for runs scored in a single game (they also had 15 on July 20, 2008 at Atlanta).

In some respects, though, this onslaught wasn’t all that surprising. Though they hadn’t scored 15 runs in a game yet this season, they had shown a knack for piling on and pounding the ball out of just about any ballpark.

And Tuesday night seemed a perfect opportunity for Washington to bust out at the plate, with the wind blowing out at Wrigley and Carlos Zambrano on the mound for the Cubs fresh off the disabled list. It took a couple innings for them to feel their way through things, but once the Nationals found their groove, they never let up.

It began with a fourth-inning homer from Willingham to left that carried over the ivy, over the bleachers and onto Waveland Avenue, a monstrous blast that drew groans from the crowd of 37,297.

That, though, was only the appetizer to the main course, which came an inning later. Taking advantage of Zambrano’s wildness — a hit batter and two walks, one with the bases loaded — Washington sent the big right-hander to the showers amid a chorus of boos. Reliever Aaron Heilman came on to try to douse the fire but only added gasoline when he grooved his first pitch to Dukes and watched as it sailed over the left-field fence.

Dukes’ first career grand slam was the outfielder’s biggest hit since he returned to the majors Aug. 1, and it had the added distinction of putting his team ahead by the comfortable margin of 9-1.

That should have made life easy on starter Garrett Mock, who with a huge cushion like that needed only to throw the ball over the plate and record outs. The young right-hander, though, continues to struggle the deeper he gets into ballgames, and Tuesday was no exception.

After cruising through his first five innings, Mock ran into trouble in the sixth, allowing four men to reach base and three of them to score. A two-out, two-run double by Geovany Soto proved the end for Mock, who was pulled by interim manager Jim Riggleman before things got out of hand.

Mock (3-5) still earned the win, thanks in no small part to his teammates’ offensive performance. But in failing to reach the seventh inning for the 11th time in as many big league starts, Mock left the Nationals just as curious about his long-term prognosis for success as they were entering the ballgame.

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