This weekend, the Nationals’ long inconsistent and at times lifeless offense might at last have hit its stride. Finally healthy with Bryce Harper and Wilson Ramos returning from injuries, the lineup has accomplished what it was designed to do all season. Washington pulverized San Diego’s pitching over a three-game sweep and moved within four games of the National League East-leading Atlanta Braves, the smallest margin since May 20.
“It’s nice to be four back with really not have played tremendously well up to this point,” Tyler Clippard said. “We’ve been playing well the last two weeks.”
The Nationals’ four-game winning streak is their longest since a five-game streak from May 4 to 10. They moved to four games over .500 for the first time since May 17. It was also Washington’s first three-game sweep since toppling the Chicago White Sox in the third series of the season. Sunday’s offensive outburst was the largest this season for criminally unsupported starter Stephen Strasburg.
“We’ve played below our potential,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “We’re coming around. That’s a good feeling.”
Zimmerman’s grand slam keyed a six-run third, matching a team season high for runs in an inning. The Nationals took advantage of a multitude of Padres miscues, including seven walks and two errors. Every Nationals starter reached base.
There have been glimpses that the Nationals’ season-long offensive slump would end, but promising developments were followed with clunkers. Weary fans would be right to be cautious about small sample sizes, but the past eight days have been the Nationals’ best sustained stretch of the season.
The Nationals have scored 10 runs or more in a game four times this season, three of them in the past eight games. They have drawn 32 walks in the same stretch. On Sunday, they torched left-handed starter Robbie Erlin for nine runs on six hits and four walks over four innings.
It’s no coincidence that the Nationals’ offense has improved with health and a lineup tweak by Johnson. Since Johnson threatened to rest Harper this weekend after the outfielder struggled in his first five games back from knee bursitis, Harper is 4 for 6 with four RBI, two walks and two stolen bases. Ramos has played in three of the past four games and is 6 for 12. Since Johnson flipped Ian Desmond and Werth in the lineup, Desmond is 6 for 15 with four walks and Werth is 8 for 12 with two RBI.
“Everybody throughout the lineup now is giving you quality at-bats,” Johnson said. “Not giving up at-bats. Once that happens that kind of takes the pressure off everybody. I like what’s going on.”
The Nationals sent nine batters to plate against Erlin in the third inning. Strasburg drew a nine-pitch leadoff walk, and Denard Span sacrificed him to second base. Desmond then drew a walk and Harper singled to load the bases for Zimmerman. Johnson has urged Zimmerman to stop looking for the “perfect pitch” and to be more aggressive. Zimmerman hammered the first pitch he saw to the right field seats. After Werth followed Zimmerman with a single, Anthony Rendon added a two-run homer to left field.
Strasburg entered Sunday’s game with the lowest run support in the majors, 2.29 runs per start, and by the third inning had a 7-1 lead. In his previous five starts, he received a total of seven runs of support and boasted only a 1-1 record despite a 1.61 ERA.
“It was a good series for us,” Strasburg said. “Obviously getting the sweep and gaining some ground. If we keep swinging like that, we’re going in the right direction.”
The Nationals scored four more runs in a wild fifth inning in which they notched only three hits but drew three walks and capitalized on two Padres errors.
Those runs proved enough. In his final inning, the sixth, Strasburg seemed to labor. He walked two batters and hit three, the humidity and sweat hurting his grip on the baseball. He escaped a bases-loaded jam in the sixth with only one run allowed. But he needed 111 pitches to get through six innings in which he allowed four runs. Despite some command issues, Strasburg’s stuff was filthy, as he matched a season-high with nine strikeouts.
Reliever Craig Stammen continued a recent stretch of rough outings, allowing five hits and three runs, two earned, over the nine batters he faced. When Johnson relieved him in the eighth inning, the Nationals led 11-7.
Drew Storen pitched a second straight encouraging inning, inheriting two runners with no outs in the eighth and escaping unscathed. Clippard pitched a perfect ninth and the Nationals walked off the field in a position that has escaped them for months, their improving offense — finally — a major contributor.
“We’re a little more consistent over the past week or so, and that’s kind of the way we thought we’d be capable of playing the whole year,” Zimmerman said. “But it hasn’t happened that way the first half and starting to round into form.”