Cubs 7, Nationals 2: A Star-Spangled Victory

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The Cubs opened their series in Washington with a solid win.

The complaint department is definitely closed. Not just because it's a holiday, but because the Cubs put together a well-played win over the Nationals, 7-2 at Nationals Park, their fourth straight win.

Seriously, this team is actually looking very good. The hitting star of the game was Justin Ruggiano, who homered and had two singles and drove in a pair of runs. Especially impressive about Ruggiano was that both of his RBI hits were off righthanded pitching, and he's historically struggled against righties. This year, though, in a somewhat small sample size (129 plate appearances entering Friday's game) he has a .751 OPS vs. RHP, .825 vs. LHP, and now three of his four homers are off righthanders.

I doubt Ruggiano, who is 32, is any sort of long-term solution for the Cubs. But he might wind up being a useful spare part for a couple of years. And I am well aware how skeptical I was about him before the season began. Since he was acquired for someone (Brian Bogusevic) who is currently posting a .692 OPS in Triple-A, I'd say that's a positive deal for Theo & Co.

Jason Hammel posted yet another quality start. When he left the game after allowing a leadoff double to Anthony Rendon in the seventh, he had allowed just one run. Neil Ramirez gave up a hit that allowed Rendon to score, but other than that the Cubs bullpen was once again outstanding, allowing just one other single and striking out three. Pedro Strop was throwing gas Friday, several pitches reaching 97 according to WGN's pitch meter. Hector Rondon had been throwing in case he was needed, but after the Cubs put together a three-run ninth, Brian Schlitter finished up.

This really shows what a solid bullpen can do for a team. Last year's pen was blowing games left and right for the first half of the year, but guys like Ramirez, Schlitter, Rondon and Strop have been mostly solid all season. Credit to the baseball side for acquiring all those pitchers, except for Schlitter, who as a holdover from the old regime has had a very strange career progression but at age 28 appears to be a useful part of the pen.

Hammel also had an RBI single and hit another ball quite hard but right at Ryan Zimmerman.

Another offensive hero Friday was Starlin Castro, who hit his 26th double of the season. He's now got 38 extra-base hits, which is tied for fourth in the National League with Freddie Freeman and Andrew McCutchen, pretty good company, and more than any shortstop in baseball. Keeping note of his doubles pace, he is back on pace for 50 doubles this season. Just two Cubs (Mark Grace in 1995 and Derrek Lee in 2005) have had 50 or more doubles in a season since 1937.

And Darwin Barney had two more hits and is now hitting .220, his highest BA (except for one September 2013 game) since last July 24. His slash line is now .220/.259/.316, and his OPS of .575 exceeds his poor season-ending .568 from last year. Again, if Barney could get that OPS somewhere into the mid-.600s he'd be a useful major-league player.

It was strange to have this game end about the same time most normal afternoon games would begin in Chicago. Honestly? I wouldn't mind morning games, beginning at 11 a.m. I'd like that better than 3:05 p.m., personally, though I suspect the players wouldn't.

The Nats are a strange team. They clearly have many talented players and a solid pitching staff that includes excellent late-inning relievers. Yet they struggle, now seven games over .500 and a game out of first place in the mediocre N.L. East. With the talent they have they should be running away with that division. It's been suggested to me that manager Matt Williams might be part of the problem, in a little bit over his head. But the way the Nats are playing, the Cubs ought to be at least able to play them two solid games the rest of this weekend, if not win the series.

About the holiday uniforms and caps: the Nats were certainly all stars-and-stripes, and kudos to those Nats who wore high socks with their 4th of July uniforms. That was a good look. And the Cubs' holiday caps, with the star behind the "C," were okay... except that the blue of the cap didn't match the blue of the Cubs' uniforms.

Saturday, Jeff Samardzija will face Gio Gonzalez in a game that begins at a little more "normal" time, 3:05 p.m. CT. We'll have Heroes & Goats from today's game and another trade proposal article, this one about the possibilities of trading with the Dodgers, later this afternoon. Enjoy the rest of your holiday and Happy Independence Day!

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