Baseball has its own plans for the Nationals

Thomas Boswell
Columnist July 4, 2012

Don’t try to tell baseball what it can and can’t do. It’s not listening to us. Our job is to listen to it. Our predictions, assumptions and expectations are the sport’s gag lines.

Right now, baseball is telling us that the Nationals are, by a slight margin, the best team in a so-far fairly weak National League and that, except for the Texas Rangers, the former Senators, nobody in the whole sport is clearly better than Washington.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

That’s not what anybody, including the Nats, expected on opening day. It may or may not continue. But the simple reality is that this team, battered by major injuries to key players all season, is finally getting healthy and hitting a ton, even against excellent pitchers. Since the Nats already have the game’s best pitching staff, that’s pretty scary.

For three months, the Nats have been wondering what kind of team they would have if they were ever fairly healthy? What if proven hitters Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse were providing merely normal production? If they are this good at winning one-run games with almost no offense, what could they be with their real lineup?

The answer: Fireworks.

On the Fourth of July, the Nats lit up 10-win Giant lefty Madison Bumgarner like a brunch-time pyrotechnic display, bombing him with three homers, a double that missed leaving the park by inches and seven earned runs in a 9-4 stomp of the Giants.

The Nats scored 33 runs in their last three games in mile-high Colorado, beat the Braves two of three in Atlanta — scoring 18 runs in that spacious park — and greeted the Giants with a pair of nine-run explosions.

Who’s hot? Who isn’t? Ian Desmond (another two-RBI hit), Danny Espinosa, with five hits against the Giants, and Bryce Harper, with two line drive hits lashed off Bumgarner, all are in the cast. “Hitting builds momentum and confidence,” said Zimmerman. “It’s just contagious.

“Pro sports are about health. Guys who have produced for years, if they are healthy, their numbers will be what they always are. It’s just that we’re finally getting healthy. This is what we envisioned. But there were a lot of speed bumps,” said Zimmerman, who has been revived by a cortisone shot to his ailing shoulder.

In three at-bats against Bumgarner, Zimmerman almost impaled the elite lefty with a line drive, hit a double six inches from the top of the left-field wall and finished his torture by scorching a homer over the right field scoreboard on a full-count low-and-away change-up. Morse followed that blast by crushing an 0-2 fastball on the low-outside corner off the back wall of the right-field bullpen. Both gopher balls were on “pitcher’s pitches.”

That’s good news. Here’s the better news. Since his cortisone shot, which relieved pain in his right shoulder, Zimmerman has hit .370, with 15 RBI, in 10 games. Almost every season, Zimmerman gets hot on or around July 4th. It’s weird. Those streaks usually last about six weeks and he hits about .390; so 30 more game of this would be standard.

In his last eight games, Morse is hitting .457 with nine RBI. Once Morse breaks out, how long does he stay hot? Last year, he cracked an early slump and hit .331 with a 1.009 OPS the next 100 games. So, he ought to cool off by the League Championship Series.

That’s not a joke. The guy with the $100-million contract extension and Beast Mode are awake now. It’s far more likely that they stay that way than not.

“I always put [the offensive problems] back to the middle of the lineup,” said manager Davey Johnson, because Morse missed the first 50 games with injury and Zimmerman was on the disabled list before trying to play hurt. “When they do it, we’re pretty good.. . . Everybody gets more happy. Michael Morse sleeps better. Ryan Zimmerman sleeps better. And I sleep better.

“All year, we’ve always been playing one-run games. Now we become whole,” said Johnson, enjoying the win in his office. “We’ll get our closer back [Drew Storen, by late next week]. Other guys did a great job. But we’re starting to get close to our best team.”

Of course, another potential big bat, Jayson Werth, who’s been shagging balls in the outfield this week with the team, may be back before the end of July.

“We’re just finally getting the team we thought we’d have,” Johnson said. “It’s fun.”

It’s more than fun. It stretches the imagination. The Nats’ 47-32 record is no fluke. They’ve played more than two-thirds of their games (54 of 79) against teams with winning records, plus 11 more against the supposedly credible Phillies and Marlins. They’ve outscored their foes by 21.5-percent (334-275), second only to Texas. Now, they’re even winning games easily, as the better clubs usually do, so their starting pitchers sometimes have a cushion and their bullpen gets some rest.

How good is this team?

We better win now,” reliever Tyler Clippard said, grinning, “because we’re going to get pretty expensive pretty fast.” No, payroll won’t be staying in the current lowest-in-the-NL-East neighborhood for long.

“Right now it’s still too early,” said Zimmerman of full-season predictions. “A switch will flip when we win and have champagne. We know we have a good team. But we also know nobody’s ever won anything in July. Even if we go into a skid, we know we’ll come out of it if we keep doing the things we are doing now.

“We thought we’d be good,” Zimmerman added. “But to be 15 games over .500 on the Fourth of July with all the injuries we’ve had, hardly anybody would have thought that was possible.”

Teams know, before the public, even before their foes, where they are headed. They live every detail. On Tuesday, pitcher Jordan Zimmermann said, “If we keep hitting the way we’re hitting now, I don’t see why we can’t run away with this thing in the second half.”

Don’t tell baseball what to do. It has its own plans. The Nats have their ears close to the ground, trying to hear what’s coming next for them. What might it be?

“Go with it,” Zimmerman said. “RUN with it.”

Hold on.

For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/boswell

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