PHILADELPHIA — As Davey Johnson described the quick-burst offensive attack his Nationals broke out Wednesday night in a 5-1 victory over Cliff Lee and the Phillies, the veteran manager noted the good vibe he got watching his guys hit in the cage some five hours earlier.
"I really like the way we took BP today," Johnson said. "We were real aggressive in BP, and we took it into the game. It was great."
Wait, how do would one even attempt to not be aggressive in batting practice?
"There's a big difference," Johnson insisted. "Sometimes we come into batting practice and we look like we try to hit everything to right field. Today we were hitting everything on the rooftops in left. We knew who was out there, and we knew he was gonna come in on us, throw the fastball and come at us. The guys approached him that way, and that was a great way to approach him."
Whether the Nationals' late-afternoon BP session had anything to do with their mid-evening thumping of Lee remains up for debate. Connection or not, they did clearly have a plan of attack against the Phillies left-hander.
There's no better strike-thrower in baseball than Lee, so the Nationals decided to turn the tables on him and take advantage of the fact they wouldn't have to reach for any pitch he threw all night. Only 12 of Lee's offerings over seven innings were balls, so the Nationals went up there swinging and managed to inflict some damage in the process.
Four different players homered in a span of eight batters in the fifth and sixth innings: Anthony Rendon, Wilson Ramos, Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth. Rendon and Zimmerman each homered on 0-2 pitches.
"I guess that's what his repertoire is," Rendon said. "He likes to go after hitters. He likes to challenge hitters. He understands when we hit the ball, there's a better chance we're not going to get a hit than get a hit. He uses to it his advantage."
Except there's no defense for a ball that clears the outfield fence, so there was nothing Lee could do on those four home runs but watch members of the Nationals circle the bases.
"Those kind of pitchers like to throw strikes a lot," Ramos said. "They're natural to throw strikes, so [they] want to get ahead and then use their breaking ball. We attack early, and that's the point we have to do every time. Those pitchers like that, they're aggressive with us. We have to be aggressive with them."
Johnson couldn't have explained his hitting philosophy any better than that. He has been preaching an aggressive approach for months, confounding at times when his players don't follow through. This time, it worked.
The beneficiary was Gio Gonzalez, whose struggles to get run support earlier this season now seem like a distant memory. Over his last five starts, the Nationals have scored 39 runs, leading to four consecutive wins for the left-hander.
"It just seemed like they were having fun," Gonzalez said. "When you see a lineup going out there swinging the bat, and especially against Cliff Lee ... he's such a great pitcher. It's tough to get some runs off him. When these guys are swinging like that, it's nice to see that against tough pitching."
Gonzalez (7-3) cruised for six innings, keeping the Phillies from scoring, but then finally ran into some trouble in the seventh. Darin Ruf's two-out homer produced the first run of the night off the lefty, and it was immediately followed by back-to-back singles.
With his starter's pitch count over 110, Johnson could have made a move right then. But he decided to let Gonzalez face one more batter: leadoff man Ben Revere.
"I had so much confidence," Johnson said. "[Revere] is hitting about .360 against left-handed pitching, but I like the way Gio pitched him and I stayed with him."
Revere hit the ball hard, but right at Bryce Harper in left field, so Gonzalez escaped the jam and then departed for the night, having thrown 117 pitches on a sweltering, 90-degree night.
After a bit of a rocky start to the season, Gonzalez now sports a 2.18 ERA over his last 13 outings. More and more, he's resembling the 21-game winner and Cy Young Award finalist from 2012.
"I think what you've seen from Gio over the last two months is more what we expect from him," Zimmerman said. "And I'm sure what he expects from himself."
What the Nationals did at the plate Wednesday night was more what Johnson had been expecting all season. And apparently it all began with a impressive round of BP, even if the clubhouse didn't exactly share the manager's sentiment on that.
"I have a great BP everyday," Zimmerman said, rolling his eyes a bit. "Sure, yeah. I had a really good BP."