BALTIMORE — The Washington Nationals’ capability for hitting home runs far outpaces their ability to predict them. Adam LaRoche views homers as accidents, the result of missing a line drive by half an inch. If Wilson Ramos tries to smash a pitch over the fence, he knows he will roll a groundball to the shortstop. “You can’t figure them things out sometimes,” Jayson Werth said.
On Wednesday night, the Nationals did not tiptoe back into first place. They knocked down the door in a 6-2 victory over the Baltimore Orioles, recapturing their home run power, recently a missing element from their offense, in the process. They blasted their way out of a tie with the Atlanta Braves, rediscovering how much easier it is to score when you pound the ball over the wall.
The Nationals clobbered three home runs in a game (all solo clouts) for the first time since May 31. Since the start of June, an offense predicated on power ranked 26th in the majors in home runs. On Wednesday, home runs from Ramos, Ian Desmond and Werth provided right-hander Doug Fister more support than he needed as he yielded two runs over seven grinding innings, earning his team-high eighth win.
“If you see the lineup, everybody can hit a homer on this ball club,” Ramos said. “Everybody is healthy. That’s what we want. If we stay like that, I’m 100 percent sure something good is coming.”
Something good came with their biggest homer binge in a month. The Nationals finished June 27 tied for first place, and then they went 7-2 over their next nine games. But the Braves reeled off eight wins in 11 games, and the teams remained deadlocked, separated by percentage points, heading into Wednesday night. As the Braves fell to the Mets, the Nationals moved ahead by a full game. Afterward, they played down their position.
“I’m not peeking around any corners,” Manager Matt Williams said.
“It’s only July,” Fister said.
“I’ve always said unless you’re up 10 games going into September, it really doesn’t matter,” Werth said. “You win your division in the second half. We’re almost there.”
With one more game in Baltimore and Gio Gonzalez — riding a 22-inning scoreless streak — on the mound Thursday, plus a series in Philadelphia against the dreadful Phillies, the Nationals can get an early start on the second half.
“We’d love to,” LaRoche said. “It seems like we’ve been kind of hanging right in there for a while. Fall back a couple games, gain a couple games. It would be nice to kind of take off here.”
The Nationals may play in the National League, but they are constructed like an American League lineup that happens to bat the pitcher ninth most nights. Their offense hums not when they’re manufacturing runs but when they’re cranking mistakes over fences.
Home run hitters populate the Nationals’ lineup from top to bottom. But Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper and Ramos have yet to regain power following hand injuries. “It’s strength,” Williams said. “The more you play, the more that strength comes back.”
In the second inning, Orioles starter Bud Norris tried to fire a 94-mph fastball past Ramos on a 1-2 count. He recognized the pitch and reacted. Upon contact, the sound echoed, the ball hissed to left field and Ramos dropped his bat at the plate. The ball landed some 12 rows deep. As he reached the dugout, Ramos tapped his helmet with his fists, signaling horns in tribute to his nickname, “Buffalo.”
“When he really finds his stroke, he’s got a chance to hit the ball a long way every at-bat,” LaRoche said.
The swing may have been one of most significant of the Nationals’ season. They counted on Ramos’s power enough to bat him cleanup opening day. But he broke his hamate bone in the seventh inning that day, and upon returning he had hit two homers in 138 plate appearances. On Wednesday, he offered a glimmer of his usual power.
“I feel my swing getting better right now,” Ramos said. “I just try to put the ball in play, put a good swing on the ball, make good contact.”
Wednesday night provided ideal conditions for homers. Juiced by the humidity and electrified by jet streams, baseballs fly out of Camden Yards this time of year. Desmond’s power stroke has been on display much of this season, and Wednesday he smashed his 16th homer — a shot to right-center field — that sent the Nationals ahead 4-1.
Manny Machado continued his assault on the Nationals with a homer to left field off Fister, which made him 8 for 9 against the Nationals in two games. The Nationals responded by loading the bases in the fifth and tacking on another run with LaRoche’s sacrifice fly to center.
In the seventh, right-handed reliever Brad Brach threw Werth a first-pitch splitter. Werth lowered himself with the pitch and hooked it into the left field seats. As Werth returned to the Nationals’ dugout, Desmond met him and howled.
“There’s definitely a lot of power in the lineup,” Werth said. “We’ve got a lot of sock in the lineup up and down. When you’ve got Wilson Ramos hitting eighth, that’s pretty good.”
When Fister walked off the mound for the final time, he wrapped his right arm around Anthony Rendon’s shoulder. Rendon sparked the Nationals’ two-run first inning with a double but earned Fister’s appreciation with his defense at third base.
He bailed Fister out of a jam with his pickpocket-quick glove in the sixth, starting a 5-4-3, inning-ending double play after he stabbed Caleb Joseph’s smash. Fister pumped his fist. He added a bare-hand scoop and a running throw in the seventh. Rendon reacted to his own acrobatics as if he had just successfully tied his shoes.
“He kind of does it nonchalantly,” Fister said. “But it’s definitely a pick-me-up for the pitcher and the team.”
Box score: Nationals 6, Orioles 2
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