At close of business today, the Nationals look up and find themselves four games over .500 for the first time since May 17.
They also find themselves four games back of the Braves in the National League East, the lowest deficit in the division since May 20.
Today’s 11-7 win over the Padres - a win that finished off a three-game sweep - combined with Atlanta’s loss to the Phillies got the Nats to this point. They’ve talked for months about wanting to start playing better baseball. That stretch has finally come, at least for the time being.
Stephen Strasburg battled through the heat today to pitch six solid innings, Ryan Zimmerman slugged his fourth career grand slam, Bryce Harper had three more hits and every Nationals starting position player reached base in the victory. It was a lengthy game in tough conditions, but it closed out a 5-2 homestand and got the Nats to a better place than they’ve been in months.
“I feel good,” manager Davey Johnson said. “We had a good homestand. A lot of good things happened. It was a tough day for Stras out there. He was battling. I thought he threw good. Sometimes he fights himself when he doesn’t make the perfect pitch but he threw a good ballgame. (Craig) Stammen, seems like the last couple weeks he’s been snakebit. Everything he does, but the bullpen did a great job. Offense is really looking good. They’re getting quality at-bats all throughout the lineup and that’s the big thing.
“I don’t so much worry about where we’re at right now. I just feel good going into the second half. We have tough series with a couple division foes coming up who are playing good and we should be ready for them.”
The Nats pounded out 11 hits and drew a whopping seven walks today, a .439 on-base percentage as a team.
“I mean, 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.”
Zimmerman’s grand slam opened things up in the third inning and allowed Strasburg to settle in a bit. Zimmerman took the first pitch he saw from Padres lefty Robbie Erlin - a center-cut fastball - and drove it over the scoreboard in right-center for his 10th homer of the season.
“He’s been more aggressive,” Johnson said. “He’s been stinging the ball, hitting the ball harder. He got his hits the first half of the season but he wasn’t hitting the ball like he’s capable of hitting it. It means earlier in the count, getting a pitch and driving it. In the past I think he sometimes would look for the perfect pitch to hit and drive and then get in pitchers counts and not hit the ball as hard as he’s capable of hitting it. Just opening that up a little and that’s a great sign.
“Pretty much everybody in the lineup now is getting more aggressive.
Harper followed up a big day yesterday with another one this afternoon, going 3-for-4 with two runs scored, an RBI and a walk. He’s now 4-for-6 with four RBIs and two walks since Johnson threatened to hold him out of the lineup. Oh, and he stole two bases today, as well.
Harper’s sixth-inning single was rifled to left field, a good indicator that the 20-year-old is staying on the ball longer and hitting it hard where it’s pitched.
“He’s outstanding,” Johnson said. “He was a little bit, he gets to grinding too much and I’m sure his timing was a little off after a month off. But he’s pretty focused right now. As is everybody in the lineup. I think everybody in the lineup is giving quality at-bats all the way through.”