On the Nationals’ offensive improvements

brushback_harperThe turnaround of the Nationals‘ offense is most stark in the comparison of two numbers. In the first 84 games of the season — when the Nationals shuffled through bench players to make up for injured starters such as Jayson Werth, Wilson Ramos, Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman, and while they endured the slumps of others such as Danny Espinosa and Adam LaRoche — the offense averaged 3.6 runs per game. In the 49 games since July 4 — when the Nationals were finally at full force with the return of Ramos, the last remaining injured starter to come back — the Nationals have averaged 4.4 runs per game.

The turnaround is “pretty self-explanatory since everybody came back from all their injuries,” Zimmerman said.  “Unfortunately, we’ve been banged up the last two years. Last year, we had some guys step up and kinda fill the gap until we got back. This year we had guys step in but just haven’t been as good as they were last year. It’s not their fault. It’s not their job to do that. Now that we’ve had everyone back really the last two months we’ve played good baseball. Offensively we really clicked.”

Eight-tenths of a run per game may not seem like much, but it is. Consider this: The league average of runs per game is 4.2. When the Nationals score three runs or less, they’re 14-57, worse than the average team. But when they score four runs or more, they are 54-8, better than the average team. In other words, when the Nationals score at least the major league average, they’re a better team than most. That, however, hasn’t happened consistently until recently.

“The most important thing is seeing the ball,” Ian Desmond said. “We’ve got a couple guys seeing the ball really well right now, working deep in the count, putting good at-bats together. And runs are the result of that. But I’ve said it so many times: You can’t fake it. If you’re not seeing the ball good, you’re not seeing the ball good. I think right now, we’ve got a couple of guys that are seeing it big, and runs are the result of that.”

With Thursday’s 9-0 spanking of the Miami Marlins, the Nationals have scored at least four runs in 16 of 24 games this month. In April, for example, they did that only 11 times in 27 games. Zimmerman notched three hits on Thursday. Harper is riding an 11-game hitting streak after making some minor adjustments at the plate. Denard Span has a 12-game hitting streak. Desmond is hitting .319 with four homers this month. Werth is on another planet, hitting nearly everything in sight.

“One guy has a good AB or whatever, I think everybody starts having good ABs,” Harper said. “One guy hits, everybody hits.”

“We’ve been slow coming together, but now’s the time to do it,” Manager Davey Johnson added. “… I just think when you don’t play like you think you’re capable of playing, whether it’s pitching or hitting, you kind of want to make amends. I think guys want to start doing the things they know they’re capable of. There’s been a good feeling on this club for about two weeks where it seems a little more relaxed, more quality at-bats, all that kind of thing. It’s fun to watch.”

Johnson also sees a team and lineup, especially, that is more relaxed than before.

“Now I think more guys trust the guys around them,” he said. “If they don’t get the pitch, leave it to the next guy. That’s big.”

Another factor in the Nationals’ offensive turnaround is hitting coach Rick Schu. Some Nationals lean more on hitting coaches and others less, so it’s hard to gauge Schu’s impact. He is certainly the new voice the Nationals hoped he would be since he replaced Rick Eckstein on July 23 and perhaps his hiring sent a clear message to hitters. Schu has preached aggressiveness on fastballs and feeling relaxed at the plate. In the first 98 games of the season, the Nationals averaged 3.7 runs per game. In the 34 games since Schu took over, they are averaging 4.6 runs per game.

“I think we’ve got a bunch of guys who have been in the league a long time,” Zimmerman said. “I think usually at the end of the year whatever they’re supposed to do they usually do. Whether you start slow or start fast I’ve said it a million times, you are who you are, and at the end of the year it’s going to be there. If you started slow, you’re going to finish strong. Now everyone is starting to come together.”

FROM THE POST

The Nationals continue playing the way they were supposed to, writes Adam Kilgore, as they topple the Marlins, 9-0, and sweep the series.

FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL

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The Nationals are swinging at a lot of 3-0 pitches

Davey Johnson on Adam LaRoche’s up-and-down season

Ross Ohlendorf will ‘probably’ start Sunday over Stephen Strasburg, Tanner Roark

Orioles claim Michael Morse off waivers

Potomac Nationals earn right to spend first round at home

Rafael Soriano and his missing slider

Ian Desmond tries to tag two Marlins at one base

NATS MINOR LEAGUES

Pawtucket 2, Syracuse 0: Yunesky Maya allowed two runs on five hits over six innings and struck out nine. Xavier Cedeno and Michael Crotta each tossed a scoreless inning. Josh Johnson went 2 for 4.

Altoona 4, Harrisburg 1: The Senators clinched an Eastern League playoff berth for the third time in four years despite a loss thanks to a loss by Richmond. Taylor Hill allowed three runs on six hits over seven innings. Justin Bloxom went 1 for 4 with an RBI.

Winston-Salem 6, Potomac 1: Sammy Solis allowed six runs on nine hits over 4 2/3 innings. Adrian Sanchez drove in a run and Michael Taylor went 1 for 4 with a double.

Hagerstown 14, Lakewood 1: Austin Voth notched his first Suns win after allowing only one run on two hits and striking out five over six innings. Derek Self and Cody Davis combined for three scoreless innings. Stephen Perez went 2 for 5 with five RBI. Wander Ramos and Geoffrey Perrott each drove in two.

Mahoning Valley 2, Auburn 1: Nick Pivetta allowed one run on five hits over five innings. Mike Mudron took the loss after allowing an unearned run. David Masters went 1 for 3 with an RBI.

The GCL Nationals’ playoff opener is Friday.

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Nationals GCL team sets a minor league record