Associated Press photo
Ryan Zimmerman rounds the bases following his fifth-inning homer.
Then Ryan Zimmerman received a cortisone shot in his ailing shoulder and Michael Morse started getting his timing back after missing eight weeks with a torn lat muscle, and the rest of the Nationals started reaping the benefits that came with the resurgence of those two stalwarts.
The end result is a lineup that suddenly is capable of carrying this first-place club, even on days when the pitching staff has a few hiccups, as was the case Sunday during an 8-4 victory over the Braves.
Over the final six games of this road trip through Colorado and Atlanta, the Nationals hit a collective .345, averaged 8.5 runs and 13.6 hits per game, mashing out 24 doubles and 13 homers in the process.
Is this more of a true reflection of the lineup they envisioned all along?
"No question," manager Davey Johnson said. "I've said all along we're going in the right direction. I know the talent here. I know what we're capable of, and to see us start doing it is more like us. Nine hits a ballgame, that should be our low with the talent on this ballclub."
The Nationals recorded exactly nine hits during this series finale on another sweltering afternoon at Turner Field when the thermometer read 101 degrees at first pitch and got as high as 104 degrees during the fifth inning.
Three of those hits came from Zimmerman, all of them driving in runs. The veteran third baseman roped a two-run double in the top of the first, belted a towering home run off Tim Hudson in the fifth and then added an RBI single up the middle in the ninth for his first 4-RBI game of the season.
Owner of a .218 average when he received the cortisone shot in his shoulder one week ago, Zimmerman has 14 hits (seven of them for extra bases) and 13 RBI in eight games since. He's raised that batting average to .241 and has raised his slugging percentage 61 points (to .366).
"We're getting healthier," he said. "We're getting more consistent. The more you can throw out the same lineup, the more consistent you're going to be. For the first half of the year, we've kind of had to shuffle things around. It's not easy to score runs when different guys are in different places and you don't really get to settle into the role."
The Nationals needed the offense on Sunday after watching All-Star Gio Gonzalez labor to finish what was shaping up to be a quality start. The left-hander allowed just one run on four hits through his first five innings, but with a pitch count at 98 under those sweltering conditions, Johnson thought about turning to his bullpen at that moment.
Convinced by Gonzalez and members of the coaching staff to leave his starter in, Johnson was beating himself up later after watching Gonzalez issue two straight walks and then a three-run homer to Freddie Freeman that brought the Braves to within two runs.
"It's 120 out there," Johnson said. "I mean, I was sweating more in this one than I was yesterday. It was really hot, and he'd already thrown 98 pitches after five and I said: 'Man, go hitter by hitter with him.' And everyone was telling me how good he was throwing, and I said: 'Well, he's from South Florida, maybe he'll be all right.' And then, boom! I was killing myself."
Turns out Johnson had no need to beat up on myself, because his lineup added two key insurance runs in the ninth and his bullpen shut the door on the Atlanta lineup, with Craig Stammen, Sean Burnett and Tyler Clippard combining to toss four scoreless innings.
Thus the Nationals head home still in firm possession of the top spot in the NL East, not to mention the best record in the NL altogether.
They'll close out the season's first half this week against the Giants and Rockies, then gear up for a pennant race knowing their once-lowly offense is now capable of doing its part to support the game's best pitching staff.
"I'm excited for the second half," rookie Bryce Harper said. "Everybody is excited for the second half. For Zim to come back and Morse to come back pretty strong like they are, to get [Jayson] Werth back pretty soon, it's going to boost another part of the offense. Consistency is huge. And that's what you see in our whole lineup right now. Everybody has been swinging it well, and hopefully we can take it into the second half and get going."