Cubs snare victory over Nationals

Cubs snare victory over Nationals

WASHINGTON -- A year ago, Reed Johnson made The Catch of the season at Nationals Park with a diving grab that ended with him colliding head-first into the outfield wall in left-center.

On Friday, Micah Hoffpauir made The Catch of 2009.

Aramis Ramirez showed he still has some power, hitting his first home run since coming off the disabled list, and Carlos Zambrano hit a two-run double to help himself and power the Cubs to a 3-1 victory over the Nationals.

Hoffpauir provided the highlight grab in the Nationals' third. Starting in left field in place of Alfonso Soriano, who hurt the little finger on his right hand Thursday, Hoffpauir had moved a step or two toward the line with two outs when Willie Harris lofted a ball toward foul territory. Hoffpauir grabbed the ball and held on as he dived head-first into the first row of the stands along the line, tumbling into the seats. Somehow he not only avoided getting hurt, but the ball girl, who didn't move.

"It wasn't as far into the bleachers as I thought, but the way [the seats] angle back there, it gave me a chance to do it," Hoffpauir said. "If I didn't catch it, so what? It would give them something to laugh about me."

"I didn't think he had a chance at that ball, to be honest with you," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said.

Hoffpauir found a soft landing, courtesy of a fan.

"I went face first into some guy's side," he said.

Third-base coach Mike Quade had given Hoffpauir a heads up, telling him to move toward the line so he had a chance.

"It's scary when you do something like that," Ramirez said. "He made a great play."

The next time a popup headed toward the left-field line, the ball girl jumped into the seats and out of the way.

"I never realized she was there until I came out of the stands," Hoffpauir said. "I went behind her."

The ball girl wasn't in the scouting reports.

"No, [she was] definitely not on the chart," Hoffpauir said.

Zambrano (6-4) struck out six over five innings for his second straight win after going six starts without a "W." He walked four and gave up four hits, but he had to be pulled early because of a high pitch count.

Zambrano began the game with a messy 40-pitch first. Nyjer Morgan was safe on an infield single and Nick Johnson walked, but Zambrano struck out Ryan Zimmerman and Morgan was thrown out trying to steal third for a double play. Adam Dunn walked and Josh Willingham was safe on an error by shortstop Ryan Theriot, who misplayed the hop, to load the bases. Zambrano then walked Harris to force in a run.

Mike Fontenot made an even bigger defensive play than Hoffpauir's when he ended the first with an off-balance-but-perfectly-placed flip of Josh Bard's grounder to Theriot at second for the force.

"They had him on the ropes a little bit, and Fontenot made a real nice play. And from then on, I thought Zambrano started to throw better," Piniella said. "We were hoping for six [innings from Zambrano], and it ended up at five."

"The first inning was a little shaky," Zambrano said. "My back was a little tight today, but nothing to worry about. After that, I was able to come back and do my job."

The Nationals' best chance was in the first.

"To have him in that much trouble, we have to get him out of there in the third or fourth innings when he's struggling like that," Washington manager Jim Riggleman said. "He is a very good pitcher. Even though he wasn't on top of his game, he held us to one run."

Zambrano's offense has become as important as his pitching, but he doesn't feel as if he has to do more to compensate for the team's struggles at the plate.

"I don't pay attention to that," Zambrano said. "I just go out there and try to do my job. My job is to pitch. Sometimes I get lucky and I get a base hit. Sometimes you don't have control of when the team's hitting or when the team's not hitting, when you have poor offense or [good] defense. You have control of what you throw, what you do, how you think in the game and what is your game plan."

The Cubs got just enough runs. They had two on and two outs in the second after Milton Bradley walked and Fontenot doubled, and Zambrano came through with a double to right that put Chicago ahead, 2-1. Ramirez, who was sidelined from May 9-July 6 with a shoulder injury, connected with two outs in the third against Craig Stammen (2-5). It was Ramirez's fifth homer this season and first since May 6.

"It feels good to swing hard and let it go and not worry about how my shoulder is going to respond," Ramirez said. "That's the key -- if I feel good, I'll be all right."

Zambrano had quite a day, making a stop at the White House for a VIP tour before Friday's game.

"Unfortunately we didn't see [President] Obama," Zambrano said. "Next time, [we'll see him] when we get a championship."

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.