The Washington Nationals were just what the Cubs needed to start the second half.
Alfonso Soriano smacked his second homer in as many days to spark a seven-run fourth inning and rookie Jake Fox drove in a career-high four RBIs, three on his fifth homer, to power the Cubs to an 11-3 victory Sunday and a sweep of the Nationals.
"I said the key was scoring runs, and I still feel that way," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "In this series here, we scored six, six and 11, which, for us, is very good production. We've got to be pleased with a 4-0 start [to the second half], and we'll go into [Philadelphia] with some momentum."
They'll need more than momentum to try to derail the Phillies, who won their eighth in a row on Sunday. The Cubs and the defending World Series champs square off Monday.
Expect to see Fox in the lineup, most likely in the outfield. He, Micah Hoffpauir and Mike Fontenot each had three hits to help the Cubs improve to 47-43 and go four games over .500 for the first time since May 20. The 11 runs and 16 hits matched season highs, and Chicago outscored Washington, 26-11, combined over the four games. Former Cubs manager Jim Riggleman, now in charge of the Nationals, has his hands full.
The last time the Cubs swept a four-game series on the road was last July 28-31 in Milwaukee. The last sweep against the Nationals on the road was when they were playing in Montreal, May 13-15, 1977. For trivia buffs, you have to go back to July 11-14, 1898, for the last time the Cubs won a four-game series in Washington. The games were played at Boundary Field then, and William McKinley was president.
Kevin Hart (1-1), recalled from the Minor Leagues before the game, picked up his first Major League win as a starter (he had two in relief roles), helping himself with his first Major League hit and RBI. He gave up two runs, five hits and five walks over five innings. If he could harness his control, it would make things a little easier.
"He gets in trouble with falling behind and the walks and it's something, I guess, with a little more experience that he'll overcome," Piniella said. "He's got good stuff and competes well."
"I've been fortunate the last two times out to pitch out of some jams," Hart said. "I know if I keep it up, I won't be as fortunate every time. It's one of those things where it's a learning experience. I have to be more aggressive early in the count and not put myself in those situations so much."
It's all about experience. The Cubs had Hart make one start during the All-Star break for Class A Peoria to stay on schedule.
"It was fun to be around 20-, 21-year-old kids again," said Hart, a ripe old 26. "I'm glad I did it now. Looking back, I can say it was good to throw on my fifth day instead of having 10 days off in between."
The Nationals could use a breather. They led, 2-1, after Ryan Zimmerman's sacrifice fly in the third, but the Cubs sent 12 batters to the plate in the fourth. Soriano, who ended the second-longest homerless streak of his career on Saturday with a three-run shot, hit a two-run blast with one out to drive in Fox and put the Cubs ahead, 3-2.
"It was huge," Fox said of Soriano's blast. "That team, when you get ahead of them, that's where you want to be, because it seems like it takes the wind out of their sails. That home run put us ahead, and we stayed ahead of them the rest of the day. That, to me, was the biggest hit of the day."
In Soriano's last 10 games, he's batting .371 with six RBIs and four multihit games.
"I just feel good at home plate -- and I'm back," Soriano said, smiling.
The All-Star break definitely helped.
"I'm not doing anything different," Soriano said. "I'm putting my left foot down in time, so the ball can get close to me, and that's working and I feel good at home plate and I'm swinging at strikes."
Back to the fourth. Fontenot followed Soriano's homer with a single and Koyie Hill walked to set up Hart, who showed bunt, then slapped a single to center for his first Major League hit and RBI.
"That's one of those plays you work on in Spring Training and you get two chances your whole career to actually pull back and slash," Hart said. "I saw both of them charging pretty hard. There was a hole up the middle, and I slapped it up the middle."
The Cubs weren't done. Kosuke Fukudome, who's hitting .324 in the leadoff spot, smacked an RBI single to chase rookie Garrett Mock (0-3). Ryan Theriot hit a sacrifice fly and Derrek Lee and Fox each hit RBI singles to make it 8-2. The seven runs were a single-season high for one inning, topping the six the Cubs scored in the fifth on May 14 against San Diego.
Fox connected in the sixth off Ron Villone. The blast came on the two-year anniversary of when he was first called up to the big leagues. The rookie, who will celebrate his 27th birthday Monday, had a much better day at the plate than on the field. He's still learning third base.
"Jake can swing the bat," Piniella said. "He had a new glove at third base today, and we checked it out a little bit. He said, 'I couldn't catch the ball with my old glove.' I said, 'So far, you're not doing much better with the new one.' The guy swings the bat. He likes to hit."
"My other [glove] wasn't getting it done," Fox said.
Just so the new one doesn't affect his hitting.