US Presswire photo
Bryce Harper congratulates Ryan Zimmerman on his fifth-inning homer.
On Independence Day, a traditional milepost during the baseball season, the Washington Nationals are 15 games over .500, thanks to a 9-4 pasting of the previously red-hot San Francisco Giants.
Surely, someone inside the clubhouse on South Capitol Street is gloating over all this. Right?
"We don't really think about it," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "We enjoy playing. Literally, just go out every day to play, and the goal is to win each series. ... There's a lot of season left. What we've done so far is great, but it doesn't mean anything until we finish the job."
For three months, the Nationals have played well enough to put themselves in this position. Now, with the season about to transition from Phase 1 to Phase 2, they can start focusing on finishing that job.
If they need a road map for success, they need only look back at the last week's worth of games, because this team is firing on all cylinders at the moment. A lineup that struggled to produce on a nightly basis has averaged 8.6 runs and 13.4 hits over its last eight games (the last five of those against quality pitching staffs from Atlanta and San Francisco).
The pitching staff has perhaps regressed a tad during that span, but as a whole that unit has continued to perform well enough to take advantage of all that run support and win six of its last eight games.
"It's no secret to us in here," said right-hander Edwin Jackson, today's beneficiary. "We know what these guys are capable of. The last week or so, they've been showing what they can really do."
Production has come from nearly every position in the lineup, but Davey Johnson knows where this all begins.
"I always put it back to the middle of the lineup," the manager said. "Those are the guys who are your best hitters, and when they struggle it has an effect on everybody else trying to do too much, trying to pick it up. ... But when they're doing their thing, everybody else is just looking for a pitch to hit hard and, consequently, you get better pitches to hit and you're a better hitter."
Thus, the lion's share of the credit continues to be heaped upon Zimmerman and Michael Morse. Over their last 10 games, that duo is hitting .391 with six doubles, seven homers and 25 RBI.
Both sluggers were at it again today. Zimmerman came within inches of a three-run homer to left in the bottom of the third, settling instead for an RBI double. Two innings later, he cleared the fence in right-center, a two-run blast. Morse immediately followed with his own opposite-field homer, one of four the Nationals hit in this game.
With the heart of the lineup raking at the plate, everyone else feels less pressure to carry the load. Which leads to all-around efforts like this one, which saw Ian Desmond deliver a two-run single, Rick Ankiel deliver a two-run homer and backup catcher Jhonatan Solano (now hitting .393) deliver a solo blast.
Danny Espinosa and Bryce Harper, meanwhile, each reached base three times, setting the stage for the big boys behind them.
"I've said it all along: It's hard to shuffle the lineup all around and have guys doing different things all year and be consistent," Zimmerman said. "Now that we're starting to get healthy and people are starting to find out what their roles are, it's a lot easier to get comfortable. And we're scoring a lot more runs."
Feeling more confident in their own ability to score runs, the Nationals don't worry so much when they give up a few early runs. There was a time not long ago when Jackson's three-run top of the first would have created an insurmountable deficit. Not anymore.
"There's no way that this offense was going to be cold all year," Jackson said. "It's just a matter of time before they get hot, and they've been in a groove and showing what they've been able to do."
And so the Nationals find themselves today in a position unfamiliar to most around these parts. Yes, the inaugural 2005 Nats also held a 4 1/2-game lead on Independence Day, but that team built around fading veterans collapsed shortly thereafter.
This team doesn't feel the same. This team has believed since Day One it could win. And now the rest of the baseball world is catching on.
"You look back at the beginning of the year, and we all talked about it," Morse said. "And now, the same people that asked the questions are coming back, and you give them the: 'I told you!' kind of thing.
"There's a lot of baseball left. What's good about this team is we really don't know how good this team can be. I think that's what makes us so great: The sky's the limit."