Nationals surviving tough stretch thanks to resurgent lineup

ATLANTA - The notion of the dog days of August can be a tired cliché, but sometimes there is truth to it. The Nationals certainly understand what it means right now, nine days into a stretch of 20 consecutive game days with no break, the heat and humidity and cross-country travel adding even more challenges to an already difficult schedule.

Make no mistake, the Nationals are still winning games at a steady pace. After tonight's 11-9 victory over the Braves, they're 6-3 in this current stretch, 12-5 for the month to date.

But the wins that should be coming easily to this team aren't, and the last two nights have been the prime example of that. Each time they opened up leads of at least five runs. And each time they still needed to summon closer Mark Melancon to record the final outs in save situations.

These games aren't for the faint of heart.

"It's scary every day," manager Dusty Baker said. "You've got to give those guys credit over there. They don't quit. They keep fighting and fighting. I don't know, I'm just glad we won the game."

They won this game thanks to an eight-run offensive explosion in the top of the fourth, and then in spite of some shaky relief pitching and infield defense late. Even on a night when starter Max Scherzer reached the seventh inning, Baker had to use five relievers to record the game's final eight outs.

The veteran skipper admittedly was worried about this entering the series at Turner Field. After a grueling three days at pitcher-unfriendly Coors Field, Baker knew the next series likely would pose a serious challenge to his staff. And there's no let-up in sight, not with four games against the Orioles coming up, and then a weekend series with the Rockies in D.C.

"We knew this stretch would be tough," he said. "But we also knew we'd have to outscore them. The same's going to apply here. The same's going to apply in Baltimore. And against Colorado. But this is the time of the year when you hope your offense can carry you."

That's what made tonight's win particularly encouraging for the Nationals. With Ryan Zimmerman back from the disabled list, Baker had a fully healthy lineup available to him again, and the result was impressive.

The fourth inning alone included eight runs on nine hits and a walk, home runs by Trea Turner and Daniel Murphy and a string of eight consecutive hits sandwiched between the inning's only outs, both produced by Wilson Ramos, who flew out and grounded into an inning-ending double play.

"Tonight, there was some hittin' goin' on," Baker said. "I don't think I've seen eight hits in a row, maybe since the days when the Pirates (of the 1970s) were the Lumber Company. I'm just glad we're hitting."

"Our offense, the lineup is so long," said Zimmerman, who batted seventh in his return from a bruised left wrist. "Almost like an American League lineup. You don't really have a break."

Zimmerman-Dugout-Congrats-Red-Sidebar.jpgZimmerman got the offense going when he homered on the very first pitch he saw, belting Tyrell Jenkins' fastball to left field with an exit velocity off the bat of 111 mph. The 31-year-old first baseman wound up going 3-for-4 with a sacrifice fly, raising his batting average seven points over the course of the game.

"To come back here and get off to a good start, I think is really positive," he said. "These guys are playing great. So, no pressure. Just come back and jump right back in. I don't have to try to do too much when six guys in front of me are hitting the ball like they've been hitting."

Baker mentioned before the game he wanted Zimmerman to try to forget about his struggles and his injuries of the previous 4 1/2 months and hit the reset button on his season.

"I didn't think he was going to hit it that quick," the manager said. "I mean, the first pitch he saw. If it was that easy, I would've said it a long time ago. I'm just glad he was here to help us, and I'm glad he feels good."

Zimmerman, who has played in only 81 of the Nationals' 122 games, might be one of the only members of the roster who does currently feel well. That could be a boost to a team that right now is trying to grind its way through perhaps the toughest portion of its schedule, owners of a comfortable 9 1/2-game lead in the National League East but still too far from the finish line to get too comfortable.

"This is the reality of baseball, the reality of being a major league baseball player," Scherzer said. "This is why we play 162, so that you have these stretches. This is what separates the men from the boys. ... You have to go out and be a professional and bring your best every single time. You're going to be worn down right now. You're dealing with a lot of different elements: Weather, travel, you name it - that's our life. You have to find a way to put that aside and compete at your highest level."

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