The Nationals storm into first place


Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports
brushback_harper

The Nationals arrived at AT&T Park to play four games against the best team in the National League. After Thursday, their record aside, they may leave with that title.

There is no hotter team in baseball than the Nationals, and there is no part of the game at which they are not excelling. They are 10-2 in their last 12 games, outscoring opponents 69-21. They moved into first place by themselves, up a full game on the Braves for the first time since April 11.

The Giants had won 14 of 17 games before the Nationals barged into AT&T Park, and they had not lost three games in a row since April 19. The Nationals have beat them three straight, in three different ways – they clobbered them with offense, out-dueled them with pitching and held on to a lead with defense. Already, they’ve claimed the four-game series before Thursday’s finale.

“It’s a tough place to come play,” Ryan Zimmerman said. “They’re the best team in baseball. I wouldn’t say it’s significant. But we try to win every series. We knew this one was going to be especially tough to win. To come in here and take the series, we’re playing good baseball. I don’t think we need to get caught up in it too much. But I think we should be proud of how we’ve come in here and played so far.”

The Nationals’ most obvious spark has been their starting pitching. They’ve received 12 consecutive quality starts. In their past eight games, Nationals starters have struck out 54 and walked one.

“We’ve been playing great baseball for the last couple weeks,” Zimmerman said. “They’re the main reason why.”

But not the only reason. The Nationals played atrocious defense for most of April and May. They haven’t made an error in five games, their longest streak of the year, and they’ve been getting fantastic plays across the diamond. Jayson Werth threw a runner out at the plate Monday night. Zimmerman saved a run with a diving catch in left field Wednesday night. Danny Espinosa did the same with a spectacular diving stop in shallow right.

Their defense and pitching would allow them grind out close victories. But their offense is letting them pile up runs. They’ve scored 5.75 runs per game over the last 12, and Zimmerman is a big reason. Oh, yeah: When Zimmerman has played this year, the Nationals are 14-5.

“It’s been big, just the way we’re playing,” starter Tanner Roark said. “We’re hitting the ball all over the place. We’re scoring runs. Starting pitchers and relievers have been just doing their thing, getting outs. We’re playing great as a team right now. Let’s keep it going. It’s excitement.”

The Nationals have made an effort not to get up caught up in their hot stretch. They’re unconcerned with their place atop the standings. “It’s too early to worry about that stuff,” Zimmerman said. But whether or not they focus on it, they can’t deny that no team in baseball is playing than them at the moment.

“We’re playing good ball,” Werth said. “That’s the most important thing. We’re winning games. We’re playing a good team here. We’ve matched up with them good. We’ve got a chance for a big win tomorrow. We’ll talk more about that after the game tomorrow. We’ll see where we’re at.”

FROM THE POST

Ryan Zimmerman shined in left field in the Nationals’ 6-2 victory over the Giants.

FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL

Williams: Zimmerman back to third when Harper is ready

Ramos heads to DL

Taylor explodes in Harrisburg

Strasburg’s major adjustment

NATS MINOR LEAGUES

Syracuse was off.

Harrisburg 15, Erie 8 (10 innings): Kevin Keyes went 2 for 6 with two homers. Matt Skole went 1 for 5 with a home run and a walk. Caleb Ramsey went 3 for 6 with a double.  Matt Grace allowed no runs in 1 2/3 relief innings on two hits and no walks, striking out four. The Senators trailed, 7-2, after five innings and scored seven in the 10th.

Potomac was cancelled. With five games left in the regular season, the P-Nats are in first place by 2 1/2 games.  Gio Gonzalez will make a rehab start in Potomac tonight.

Lakewood 10, Hagerstown 2: Jefry Rodriguez allowed three runs, one earned, in five innings on seven hits and no walks, striking out four. James Yezzo went 2 for 4. Ike Ballou went 1 for 3 with a walk.

Adam Kilgore covers the Nationals for The Washington Post.
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