Nats rounding into form as season moves into third month

PHILADELPHIA - On nights like this, when Max Scherzer is dealing and guys are producing up and down the lineup to complete a road series sweep, the Nationals have the look of an elite ballclub.

Maybe the competition - the suddenly sliding Phillies - wasn't the stiffest, but the Nationals still have to play everyone on the schedule. And so this 7-2 victory at Citizens Bank Park, on the heels of victories each of the previous two nights, was exactly what the Nats needed: No drama.

And so they have won four in a row overall, are 12 games over .500 for the first time this season and have completed the first third of the 2016 campaign with a 33-21 record. Go ahead, do the math and extrapolate. These guys are sitting in a strong position. Despite the fact they still haven't gotten everybody performing in unison.

scherzer-pitching-gray-close-sidebar.jpg"We're not hot yet," manager Dusty Baker said. "But we're winning some games in the meantime."

The Nationals swept this series despite losing Bryce Harper to a bruised right knee. No problem because they got offensive contributions from just about everyone else. Five different players combined to hit seven homers over the last three nights. Six different players drove in 16 total runs.

"We have a really good lineup," said Ryan Zimmerman, owner of a .988 OPS over his last 21 games. "When Bryce is in there, obviously you get guys like (Wilson Ramos) hitting sixth, seventh, something like that. Just having that depth really wears down the other pitcher, I think. He doesn't really have a break from one through eight, and we're going to grind on him."

The Nationals did just that tonight against Adam Morgan, chasing the Phillies left-hander after he surrendered six runs in six innings.

Zimmerman drove in a pair of runs with a first-inning double and a seventh-inning sacrifice line drive. Ramos drove in one run with a fourth-inning single, then launched a three-run homer in the sixth. Danny Espinosa followed with a solo homer of his own, his fourth in seven days, to put the game out of reach.

That the Nationals are getting production out of the bottom of their lineup isn't lost on them.

"It helps a lot," Espinosa said. "I think it makes it a little more difficult for a pitcher at the bottom of the lineup, to see what they want to do. Or at some point they might want to pitch around you or something, and then we flip the lineup. Whatever we can do to continue the game and get more runs. It's a big help."

And all of that helps the starting pitcher, especially when he's in a groove like Scherzer was tonight.

The right-hander set the tone right from the first inning, retiring the side with a pair of strikeouts, and he never let up. He finished with 11 strikeouts over eight innings, the only runs he surrendered coming on Tyler Goeddel's homer in the seventh.

"I was able to pitch with four pitches early in the game," Scherzer said. "I was able to get some cutters, swing-and-misses on some cutters, and that's a big pitch for me. If I can make that play, it seems to open up everything else. I was able to throw my curveball for a strike early in the count. It just allowed me to pitch with all my pitches tonight, and when I can do that and attack the zone, that's when I can have success."

The Nationals as a whole are having success right now. They're starting to hit. They continue to get stellar pitching. They have been among baseball's best defensive teams through the season's first two months.

"Everyone's playing a part," Zimmerman said.

And because of that, the Nationals have to like where they stand as the season enters its third month.

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