Nationals vs. Braves: Washington clobbers Atlanta to earn series split


Ross Detwiler pitched seven strong innings to pick up the win. (Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

With two fluid, powerful swings, Ryan Zimmerman led the charge and dispelled the impending bad news. He sent two balls into the stands, powering the Washington Nationals past the Atlanta Braves in Sunday’s 9-2 win. The franchise’s best player when the team struggled for years continued his barrage at the plate; he is locked in one of the hottest hitting streaks of his career. He guided the offense to 18 hits, a team record at home, to cap an important series with a dominating finish.

Meantime, Ian Desmond, who held the torch earlier this season through offensive struggles and injury woes, had no part in Sunday’s win. The shortstop missed yet another game and was headed to the disabled list for at least two weeks because of a left oblique tear.

The offense has been in Zimmerman’s hands recently, and he continued to lead it. “It was kind of a bittersweet day,” Manager Davey Johnson said.

The Nationals ended the series where they began. After dropping the first two games of one of the most important series in team history, they rebounded and reclaimed their 31 / 2-game lead in the National League East. Just as before, their third baseman is still hitting everything that comes near him, and their cleanup hitter, key infielder and backup outfielder keep contributing in bigger ways with each game.

Zimmerman finished 3 for 5, driving in three runs with two home runs. Michael Morse added three hits. Danny Espinosa continued to show that his hitting from the left side of the plate is catching up to his swings from the right side; he went 3 for 4 with two runs driven in. Roger Bernadina notched three more hits, and in limited time, has proved to be valuable. Even backup catcher Sandy Leon added a two-run double. The offense notched a double-digit hit total for the third time in the four-game series, and gave starter Ross Detwiler plenty of cushion for his strong seven-inning performance.

“When your three-hole hitter is doing what he’s doing that just takes the pressure off everybody in the lineup,” Johnson said. “Everybody doesn’t feel the burden of the offense and scoring runs because he’s going to produce runs.”

Through the first three months of the season, Zimmerman was close to a ghost at the plate, something he attributed to his ailing right shoulder. But since a cortisone shot in the shoulder on June 24, he has produced offensive numbers at an all-star pace. His batting average hovered at .218 but is up to .273 thanks to a torrid 40-for-102 stretch. He had three home runs before and since has launched 11 of them, including two impressive shots on Sunday.

“I’ve come back and started being the player that I should be,” he said. “The more you get healthy, and the more consistency you have in your lineup, the more runs you’re going to score.”

Zimmerman’s first home run seemed accidental. With Bryce Harper on first because of a fielder’s choice, Braves starter Jair Jurrjens tossed an 84-mph change-up to Zimmerman with a 2-2 count. Zimmerman had already fouled off one pitch, and the outside change-up looked destined for the same fate. Zimmerman half-swung through it, his arms fully extended. But the ball sailed into the right-center field seats, just above the out-of-town scoreboard. “Sometimes when you clip those, they go farther than you think,” he said.

On Zimmerman’s second home run, Jurrjens jumped ahead on Zimmerman with a 1-2 count. He then tossed an inside 83-mph change-up, which tailed in on Zimmerman’s hands. Zimmerman dropped his eyes onto the ball, kept his head down and swung through, keeping his hands low and inside. The sweeping, upper-cutting swing drove the ball deep into the left field seats.

“He is swinging the bat so good it’s scary,” Johnson said. “You feel like every time up there he’s going to hit a rocket. As tired as we were, offense getting 18 hits, scoring nine runs, [against] a pretty good pitching staff. Says something.”

Just as important as Zimmerman’s continued stretch is the improved hitting of Espinosa. He adds a power stroke and switching-hitting dimension to the lineup, one that can withstand the slumps of Harper and the loss of Desmond.

For the first half of the season, Espinosa was two hitters at the plate. From the right side, he was hitting like an all-star but from the left side, he was strikeout prone. To start July, he was hitting .226.

But with a 23-for-65 streak this month, Espinosa’s batting average has jumped to .250, the highest point since April of last season. He drilled a run-scoring double in the first inning. He added a run-scoring single in the third and another double in the fifth inning. Since he notched three hits from the left side of the plate in a game in Miami last week, Espinosa has continued to swing well, Johnson said. And he has also taken over Desmond’s spot, moving from second base to take his spot at shortstop, where he played in college.

“I’m hoping that I can continue to swing the bat well and kind of fill-in for Desi,” Espinosa said.

Following the game, players were upbeat — Desmond included — about losing a top player to injury. The Nationals have been here before and with a hot-swinging Zimmerman leading the way, they feel confident about the future.

These Nationals have been tested, losing at least six players from their projected opening day lineup to the disabled list: their starting catcher, third baseman, left fielder, center fielder, right fielder and closer. They’ve also lost two relievers, a starter-turned-reliever and utlity man to the disabled list. And now, their shortstop.

“We’ve been through a lot of adversity this year,” Zimmerman said. “We’re just going to keep playing and doing what we’ve been doing.”

James Wagner joined the Post in August 2010 and, prior to covering the Nationals, covered high school sports across the region.
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