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In their last 13 games, the Nationals have hit 16 homers - a number that would be impressive in and of itself if they weren't coming in big spots. But more often than not, the deciding blow has come on a ball that left the park.
Four times in the team's current eight-game win streak - which is now tied for the second-longest since the Nationals moved to Washington - the Nationals' biggest offensive play of the game, as measured by Win Probability Added, has come on a home run. Three of those have been hit by first baseman Michael Morse, who hit a go-ahead homer in San Diego last Saturday, put the Nationals up for good in a 10-0 win over the Cardinals on Wednesday and did so again with a two-run homer in the sixth on Saturday.
(He also hit a grand slam June 5 against Arizona to put away a close game there in the 13th inning.)
Jim Riggleman discusses the Nats' eighth straight victory as they defeat the Orioles 4-2
Perhaps more than at any other time in recent history, the Nationals are changing games with their ability to hit homers. By himself, Morse has added almost an entire win to the team's ledger with his home runs in key spots this month; his WPA is 0.93 in 17 games.
"His biggest thing is to realize he can be a guy in this league and can be a 3-4-5 hitter, and I think he's finally realized that," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "He's not going to be one to say that or come out and say by any means that he's there. But you can tell, just the way he prepares, the way he goes into every game, the sky's the limit for him now. His talent is just through the roof."
And other players have hit big homers, too: Danny Espinosa launched a three-run walk-off home run on Thursday night against the Cardinals, and Laynce Nix added an insurance run that turned out to be necessary in that game against St. Louis.
To start, the Nationals are hitting more homers this season than they have in years past; they were sixth in the National League with 64 homers before Saturday, when they hit two, and they are one of only three teams to have four players with double-digit home runs. Zimmerman, who just came off the disabled list Tuesday, hit his second homer of the year on Saturday and figures to join the double-digit club at some point.
But they've also had a flair for the moment. Morse entered today with a 1.077 OPS in high leverage situations; Espinosa's was 1.106. Compare that to Adam Dunn, who hit 38 homers last year but provided few of them in tense spots - only eight came in high-leverage situations, and Dunn's OPS was only .838 in those moments.
The Nationals' plan this year was to replace Dunn's output with contributions from a variety of sources, and Morse and Espinosa were two of the players they were counting on to do it. Not only are they hitting more home runs this year, they're getting them when it matters most.
And now they'll have a chance to get to .500 tomorrow at the latest point in the season since 2005. Their big hits have brought the Nationals within a game of a meaningful milestone.
"It kind of shows how much we've grown up as a team," Zimmerman said. "Playing in games in the middle of the season when it means something takes a little more concentration, a little more mental toughness. I think we're finally getting to that hump. I don't know if we're over that yet. The second half of the year is going to be a big test for us. But it's a step in the right direction."