- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 26, 2009

CHICAGO | There has been the occasional off-night here and there, one of those ballgames in which it seems no one can produce a clutch hit. More often than not, though, the Washington Nationals’ starting lineup has 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 game (they also had 15 on July 20, 2008, at Atlanta).

“It’s a good lineup. There’s a lot of good professional hitters there that give us an opportunity,” interim manager Jim Riggleman said. “And for whatever reason we weren’t taking advantage of it early. We were hitting. We were fourth or fifth in the league in hitting but 10th in runs scored. Lately we’re still fourth in the league in hitting, but we’ve probably gotten up to fifth or sixth in runs scored. They’ve just been getting timely hits.”

Tuesday night seemed a perfect opportunity for Washington to bust out at the plate, with the wind blowing out at Wrigley and Carlos Zambrano, fresh off the disabled list, on the mound for the Cubs. 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 his biggest hit since returning to the majors Aug. 1, and it had the added distinction of putting his team ahead by the comfortable margin of 9-1.

“You’ve got me down in the 7-hole, and it just comes so quick,” Dukes said. “You’ve got guys up there that get just hit after hit after hit, and then I’m up there. Hit after hit after hit, and then I’m up there. All day. It feels good. I love to see these guys getting on base.”

All that offense 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 hit a wall 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 of the road for Mock, who was pulled by 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.

“I made my pitches,” he said. “I just didn’t get the results I wanted. It’s frustrating, but it happens. I’ll try to move forward.”

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