Nats 7, Reds 1

Don’t call it a comeback. Actually – maybe do that for Nyjer Morgan. The Nats centerfielder and leadoff batter has been caught stealing 13 times this season. It got to the point where everyone cringed when he took off from first base thanks to a success rate of 64.8 percent. His solid .374 on-base percentage in April was just a distant memory as was his .831 OPS in 49 games last summer.

Well, on Thursday Morgan stole a career-high three bases in a 7-1 win at Cincinnati. He was 2-for-4 with a walk and an RBI ground out and has 19 hits this month – nine alone on this long road trip. No surprise that the Nats have scored 22 runs in their last three games and had plenty of chances to do the same in Florida, where they stranded 23 runners in a three-game series. Let’s be honest – the Nats offensive struggles this year aren’t the fault of the middle of the lineup. Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham have done their job. The top of the order hasn’t reached base enough and Morgan’s been a huge part of that problem. His three-steal day, though, increased his success rate to 67.5 percent (27-for-40). That’s at least eight points away from justifying Morgan’s attempts. But at least that number is on the upswing. Morgan has been successful on 12-of-15 attempts since June 15. That’s perfect if he can keep it up. 

You can use “comeback” to describe Willie Harris’ series in Cincinnati, too, I guess. The veteran outfielder had basically become a pinch hitter since April. His batting average dipped as low as .152 with a truly abysmal .560 OPS. But with two starts in this four-game series Harris was 4-for-8 with a home run, a triple, three walks and five runs scored. He’s still not going to get regular starts. But at least manager Jim Riggleman will have the confidence to get him more playing time – maybe spell Willingham in left a little more often with a start or two in a crowded right field.

The big story Thursday, of course, was Livan Hernandez. The 35-year-old veteran just keeps producing. He pitched a complete game with just seven hits allowed and one earned run. He saved a bullpen that had been worked hard early in the second half. Hernandez didn’t walk a batter and struck out five, lowering his ERA to 3.12 and improving his record to 7-6. Even in nine innings he threw just 102 pitches. He was ahead of Reds batters all day and retired 11 of 12 between the fourth and seventh innings, erasing the lone runner with a double play thanks to a brilliant catch by Roger Bernadina in right field. Hernandez even drove home a run in the second-inning with a bases-loaded single.

In addition to his sweet catch, Bernadina hit his sixth homer of the year. Zimmerman had his 51st RBI with a base hit. Dunn hit his 23rd homer to drive in two – and mask a four-strikeout day. Adam Kennedy even batted 2-for-3 with a walk, an RBI and a run scored. Pretty much the perfect way to escape Cincinnati with a split and head to Milwaukee. If you think you saw some offense at Great American Ballpark this week just wait. The Brewers have Major League Baseball’s fourth-worst pitching staff with a 4.94 ERA and the National League’s second-best offense with a .771 team OPS. They can mash. So no better time for Hernandez to give the bullpen a break. Neither he nor Stephen Strasburg can do anything to help in Milwaukee this weekend as Washington (42-54) ends the 10-game road trip. So far – 3-4 even after a pair of shutout losses at Florida and an 8-7 loss in Cincinnati on Tuesday.

Nats Notes

» Still no word on who Washington will use as its starter in Sunday’s road-trip finale at Milwaukee. John Lannan was expected to make his start on Thursday night for Double-A Harrisburg so that would exclude him. Matt Chico and Ross Detwiler are the other candidates.

» That move is necessary because Luis Atilano is headed to the disabled list with bone chips in his right elbow. An MRI revealed that news after Atilano complained of elbow soreness after his most recent start – an ugly stint against the Reds on Tuesday. Atilano will take the path trod earlier by Jason Marquis. A cortisone shot, rest and then a rehab program. If it doesn’t work then the 25-year-old will eventually have surgery. Marquis had his procedure done in May and is just now making minor-league starts. Atilano should be ready in plenty of time for spring training even if he has to undergo surgery. Chico last pitched on Tuesday so he is the logical choice. Detwiler went on Wednesday afternoon.

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