Hot-hitting Nationals sweep Mets to win sixth straight


Ryan Zimmerman celebrates his first-inning home run against the Mets with teammate Ian Desmond at Citi Field. (Jim McIsaac/GETTY IMAGES)
September 12, 2013

Another 17 days will pass before the Washington Nationals know what exactly their recent dominance has accomplished. In the end, it may stand as a testament to what could have been or the foundation of a late-fall dream. In the moment, it serves to raise a weighty question: If the Nationals actually make October, who would want to play them?

The Nationals’ latest show of force came Thursday afternoon in a 7-2 trouncing of the New York Mets at Citi Field. The schedule may be flimsy and their awakening may have been too late, but the Nationals have become the hottest team in baseball. After a four-game sweep finished an 8-2 road trip, the Nationals have won eight of nine, 23 of 32 and a season-best six in a row.

“The team that goes into the playoffs playing hot, playing good ball, to me that’s usually the most dangerous team in any sport,” said center fielder Denard Span, who extended his hitting streak to 23 games with an eighth-inning double. “So if we can sneak in there, I’m pretty sure some teams would probably be a little worried.”

The prospect remains a long shot. With 16 games to play, the Nationals sliced the idle Cincinnati Reds’ lead to 51 / 2 games in the race for the NL’s second wild-card spot. They will head back to Washington for a 10-game homestand that includes seven games against the Philadelphia Phillies and Miami Marlins, the kind of also-rans the Nationals have feasted on all month.

“If anything, it makes it frustrating seeing what we’re doing now, knowing what we didn’t do for the better part of four months,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “Now you’re starting to see what this team can do. I’ll never know what took us so long.”

The Nationals bashed 13 home runs over the four-game demolition compared to none for the Mets, the most homers ever been hit by an opponent in a series at Citi Field. In Thursday’s soggy matinee, Ryan Zimmerman, Wilson Ramos, LaRoche and Anthony Rendon all drilled solo homers. Zimmerman’s first-inning drive to left gave him eight homers in his past 10 games.

“We’re on fire right now,” Ramos said.

The Nationals added 10 doubles in the series, which continued a remarkable power stretch. After they belted seven more extra-base hits Thursday, the Nationals have slugged .463 over their 32-game surge to contention. Over the course of a season, that would rank somewhere between Matt Holliday and Justin Upton.

“Hitting’s contagious both ways,” right fielder Jayson Werth said. “A couple guys go into a slump, everybody goes into a slump. Couple guys get hot, everybody gets hot. Just how this game goes. Right now, it’s going our way. All season things haven’t been going our way, so you figure at some point things have got to swing in the other direction. We’ll see if there’s enough time.”

Tanner Roark allowed two runs on six hits over six efficient innings, coasting through 78 pitches despite a 56-minute rain delay after the first inning. An unheralded, 26-year-old call-up, Roark has begun his major league career with a 6-0 record and a 1.30 ERA over 342 / 3 innings.

The Nationals confronted right-hander Aaron Harang, who last week was pitching in the Class AAA playoffs for the Seattle Mariners’ affiliate. Afflicted with injuries and ready to shut down young starters approaching innings limits, the Mets were basically running out of pitchers. Harang had major league experience and an arm attached to his shoulder, so he fit the Mets’ qualifications.

Harang, 35, produced a strange mix of dominance and vulnerability. In his 315 career starts before Thursday, Harang had struck out at least 10 batters only 12 times — and then he whiffed 10 Nationals in six innings. The Nationals did not record a hit that failed to clear the fence until Bryce Harper’s two-out single in the sixth, but they launched three of their homers off Harang.

The first came from Zimmerman. In the first inning, he crushed a first-pitch, 88-mph fastball for his 23rd home run this year, which tied him for the team lead with Jayson Werth. Two weeks ago, Zimmerman left fans wondering what had happened to his power. In his first at-bat Thursday afternoon, he vaulted into the National League’s top 10 in home runs.

“We want to continue to play like we’ve been playing, just to see what happens,” Zimmerman said. “If we get in, great, because we’ll be hot.”

The Nationals broke open the game with four runs in the final three innings. In the eighth, Span led off. He was 0 for 2 with a walk on the day to that point and perhaps had one more chance to keep his streak alive. In his third plate appearance, Span had lined out to third base. This time, he cracked reliever Frank Francisco’s 2-1 fastball to right-center for a double. The streak grew to 23.

“I got back in the dugout, and everybody was like, ‘You’ve got to do it earlier than this, man. You’re giving us a heart attack,’ ” Span said. “So it’s fun just to hear everybody’s with me.”

As the inning continued, Francisco drilled Werth with a fastball square in the middle of the back. Werth glowered at Francisco before he walked to first, at one point stopping to chuck his elbow pad back toward the Nationals’ dugout.

“That guy is a little goofy out there anyway,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “He was looking over at our bench and chatting at our bench. It’s a good thing we don’t see them again.”

Harper followed with a grounder to second base. Werth slid hard into shortstop Ruben Tejada, breaking up a double play. When Ian Desmond followed with another grounder, Harper barreled into second baseman Daniel Murphy, which broke up another twin killing and allowed Zimmerman to score.

“The second baseman knew they were coming,” Johnson said. “That’s just good baseball.”

The glare and the slides offered another reminder. The Nationals, after a season spent idling or worse, are no longer a team to be messed with.

Adam Kilgore covers the Nationals for The Washington Post.
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