At the end of last season, when the Nationals were moving ever closer to letting first baseman Adam Dunn leave in free agency, there was no bigger proponent of keeping Dunn than the man sitting next to him in the clubhouse and hitting in front of him in the lineup: third baseman Ryan Zimmerman.
It was easy - and quantifiable - to tell why Zimmerman wanted Dunn back: His best two seasons had come with Dunn protecting him, and Zimmerman was the first to cite the presence of a dangerous cleanup hitter as a reason for his maturation as a hitter.
Consider what he said last Dec. 2, after Dunn signed with the Chicago White Sox: "My two best seasons statistically were with the big guy behind me. Obviously it's nice to have someone like that behind you. You're not going to walk as much, and if they think about walking you, there's another guy coming up."
The Nationals recouped part of that protection, they thought, by paying a combined $142 million for Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche. But even before the right fielder got off to a disappointing start and the first baseman saw his season end early because of shoulder surgery, the Nationals were always going to have to find another source of offense. Werth and LaRoche's career numbers suggested they weren't going to match the combined numbers of Dunn and Josh Willingham, even in a good year. The Nationals were counting on another bat to emerge, and they had their hopes set on Michael Morse.
Eight and a half months after the decision to let Dunn walk, the Nationals are finding production in their lineup in even ways they couldn't have expected. After winning the left field job in spring training, nearly losing it in April and finding a new home at first base in May, Morse is putting together the best offensive season in Nationals history. He went 2-for-4 with a homer and a double in a 6-4 win over the Reds on Tuesday night, raising his season OPS to .938. The best mark in Nationals history before this year was Dunn in 2009, at .928.
In front of him, Zimmerman is hitting .362 in his last 26 games. He launched a homer about three rows from the left field concourse off Mike Leake in the fifth inning on Tuesday night; manager Davey Johnson said Zimmerman called the shot in the dugout after Leake had been throwing him inside fastballs in his first two at-bats, while Zimmerman coyly deflected the question.
"If Davey said I did, then I might have," he said with a smirk.
He's certainly been capable of it in the last month. He had a weighted on-base average of .405 in the last 30 days before tonight, which was the 14th-best mark in the National League. Zimmerman looks fully recovered from the torn abdominal muscle that limited him to eight games in his first two months, and what's more, he's got bona fide protection in the lineup behind him again. Even Werth, who was hitting .215 at the All-Star break, has come around; he's got an .831 OPS in his last 27 games, and went 1-for-3 with a double and a walk on Tuesday.
"Four is obviously important, but I think for it to be really important, you need a five guy," Zimmerman said. "Jayson has been having better at-bats. His average is whatever, but he's starting to drive the ball a little bit more - hit some home runs, hit some doubles like he did tonight. Having a guy behind you, and then another guy, is key. Jayson's here for a long time, and I'm here for a couple more years, as of now. Mike has some time left, too. It'd be a good group to kind of keep together, I think."
All of a sudden, the Nationals look like they have a middle of the lineup they can build around again. They expect Werth will continue to rebound - possibly not to the numbers he put up in Philadelphia, and certainly not to the point of producing fair value for his contract, but enough to give them a solid No. 5 hitter. Morse is having one of the best offensive seasons in the National League, and Zimmerman is still only 26 - though his off-hand remark about his contract, which expires after the 2013 season, was interesting.
Eventually, they'll add Bryce Harper and possibly Anthony Rendon to that mix. They expect Danny Espinosa - who's looked drained and is having a dreadful second half - to regain the form that helped him hit 16 homers in the first half. It's conceivable they could keep the same heart of the order together for the next four or five years, and their roundabout way into that lineup comes in a year where Willingham has struggled at times and Dunn is having one of the ugliest offensive seasons in modern history.
That's not to say there aren't issues to work out. The Nationals still have a gaping hole at the top of their lineup (their leadoff hitters have a .269 on-base percentage this year), and it's why they went so hard after Twins outfielder Denard Span last month. They also need to figure out where Morse fits; manager Davey Johnson said he might try Morse in left field again next month and give prospect Chris Marrero a look at first base. LaRoche figures to be back at first next year, and though Morse insisted again on Tuesday his play in left field wasn't affecting him at the plate, rightly pointing out he put up solid numbers in right field last year, too, there's no denying he's been a different hitter since switching positions.
It might be enough just to have him playing every day, though, and with what he's brought to the lineup, there's no chance of the Nationals taking him out of it.
"Ever since I've been here, he really hasn't had a bad day," Johnson said. "I don't know where we'd be without him. He's been awfully good."
And he's at the center of a lineup that all of a sudden looks like it has a foundation.