Celebrations aplenty as Nationals sweep Marlins (updated)

Ryan Zimmerman danced in the dugout for the first time, only a short while after Anthony Rendon broke his longstanding club record for RBIs in a single season. Rendon’s record-breaking hit - his third homer in less than 24 hours - drew more chants of “MVP! MVP!” from the crowd at Nationals Park. And during a pitching change, as “Circle of Life” played over the speakers and adult fans held their children up in the air a la Simba in “The Lion King,” the camera cut to the dugout, where 22-year-old Victor Robles hoisted up 30-year-old teammate Adam Eaton to a thunderous roar from everyone in attendance.

The Nationals, suffice it to say, are having a blast these days. And why shouldn’t they? They’re playing the most exciting brand of baseball this town has ever seen, winning at a ridiculous rate and enjoying every single minute of it.

“It’s amazing,” Juan Soto said. “It’s how everything changed. When we started enjoying the game and started joking in here, it’s like everything changed. The game. Dancing with the homers. Dancing after the games. It’s amazing.”

And today’s 9-3 win, completing a weekend sweep of the Marlins, might well have represented the joyous high point of the summer. Which, given the fact the summer unofficially ends Monday, seemed fitting.

The Nationals are playing as well as they’ve ever played, and they flexed their muscles the last three days against a dreadful Miami club that didn’t look like it belonged in the same zip code as this bunch.

Soto-Tracks-Homer-White-Sidebar.jpgToday’s festivities saw four different Nats hit home runs: Rendon, Zimmerman, Yan Gomes and Soto. It saw Patrick Corbin retire the first 12 batters he faced before stumbling in the fifth. It saw Rendon and Soto continue to play a baseball version of “H-O-R-S-E,” basically to a deadlock.

And it saw the Nationals win for the ninth time in their last 10 games, improving to a season-best 19 games over .500 heading into a key week against a pair of division rivals in the Mets and Braves.

“I think we’ve got to try and stay even-keeled,” Rendon said. “I think if we get excited for it ... then the moment might get to us. Then if we downplay it, we might get taken advantage of. I think we just take it as every other game but understand that we’re still trying to win it. Not necessarily do or die, but understand that we’re still trying to score more runs than the other team.”

Corbin took center stage early today, cruising through his first four innings on 46 pitches, striking out seven and not so much as losing one drop of sweat along the way. In the process, he joined Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg in the 200-strikeout club, making this the first trio of National League teammates to reach that number in the same season since the Astros in 1969.

“As a starter, you want to make every start and go as deep as you can into every ballgame,” Corbin said. “If you do that, your strikeouts will add up. To be a part of this staff that has pitched so well all year, ... it’s just an exciting team to be a part of right now. I think everyone in this clubhouse will say we’ll match up against anybody.”

The left-hander had a dramatic reversal of fortunes in the fifth when four straight Marlins reached base, the first three of them scoring to take a surprising 3-2 lead. But he settled down after that and made it through the sixth on 95 pitches before calling it a day.

Which was no problem at all, because Corbin’s teammates more than supplied enough run support for him with a flurry of homers from the fifth through the seventh innings.

Rendon got it started with a two-run blast off Caleb Smith in the bottom of the fifth, a record-setter as it turned out. With his 32nd homer of the season (his third in less than 24 hours), he broke Zimmerman’s single-season club record with 111 RBIs, a record that had stood since Zimmerman was a rookie third baseman in 2006.

“It’s cool, it’s awesome,” Rendon said with his usual shrug. “It’s a great accomplishment, but, I mean, it’s individual. It doesn’t matter. We could be losing 100 games, and then y’all would be asking me the same question. So it doesn’t matter.”

Rendon, who at that moment led the majors in both batting average (.337) and RBIs (111), would reach base three times in the game to cap a brilliant weekend. Then again, the guy who bats behind him was every bit as brilliant.

Soto began his afternoon with two doubles, one of them driving in a run. He capped it with a homer in the bottom of the seventh, his 31st of the season. Which left him and Rendon a combined 14-for-22 with six doubles, five homers and 14 RBIs for this series.

“I don’t want to be facing these guys right now,” Corbin said. “You can’t get them out.”

But the most emotionally satisfying homer of the day came from an old friend. Fourteen years to the day after he made his major league debut for the only franchise he’s ever known, Zimmerman returned from his second long stint on the injured list, the plantar fasciitis in his right foot having healed enough to allow him to return for September (and perhaps beyond).

Zimmerman grounded out in his first at-bat, then drove a fly ball to the warning track that was caught in his next plate appearance. Then it all came together his third time at the plate. He demolished Smith’s pitch, the ball leaving his bat at 110.6 mph and landing 437 feet away in left-center field.

“It really electrified everybody,” manager Davey Martinez said. “He worked diligently to get back. He’s back. We joked with him about being a September call-up, and here he is. He contributes. That’s what it’s going to take. That’s what it’s going to take to finish what we started.”

Thanks to his first home run since April 21, back before Gerardo Parra was a National and home runs merited only token celebrations, Zimmerman finally got to participate in his first dugout dance party. The 34-year-old with so many miles on his body responded as only he could. He took several tiny steps, mimicking the motion of a senior citizen using a walker, then broke out in a smile and did a little shimmy as teammates roared with approval.

“I’m old,” Zimmerman said. “Dancing’s not really my thing. But got to do it.”

On a day when there was plenty of reason to have fun, every little bit was appreciated.

“Anyone in this room, we’re all competitors,” Zimmerman said. “The hardest part is when you can’t be out there. I think that’s the most frustrating part for any athlete in any professional sport. All of us want to be out there. Yeah, it’s been frustrating. But the way they’ve been playing, the winning has made it a little bit easier, but you always want to be out there and be part of it.”

At long last, the longest tenured player in the organization is part of it.

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