Harper, Zim leading Nats' offensive surge

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Harper, Zim leading Nats' offensive surge

MIAMI -- Don't look now, but the Nationals are actually scoring runs in bunches. A lineup that not long ago featured more black holes than a Carl Sagan novel is starting to produce in a manner more befitting a first-place club.

Over the season's first 40 games, the Nationals averaged a scant 3.6 runs. Over their last eight games, they've raised that average to 5.2 runs.

So, what's been the biggest difference? It's not necessarily what you might expect. The Nationals aren't producing that many more hits (8.6 per game during this stretch vs. 8.2 during the season's first quarter). And they're actually reaching base with less frequency (posting a .314 on-base percentage during this stretch vs. a .315 mark prior to it).

No, the reason the Nationals are scoring more runs these days is that they're hitting for more power.

Through games 1-40, they averaged only 2.8 extra-base hits, a pretty paltry total. Since then, they're averaging 3.9 extra-base hits. That equates to nearly a 100-point increase in the team's slugging percentage and OPS.

Where's this sudden surge of power coming from? A lot of it is coming from the longest-tenured player on the roster and the least-tenured player on the roster.

Let's start with Ryan Zimmerman, whose first season since signing a 100 million contract extension hasn't exactly gone according to plan. Sidelined for two weeks with shoulder inflammation, Zimmerman was slow to get back on track. But he's been heating up over the last week-plus: In his last 10 games, he's hitting .318 with five extra-base hits and nine RBI.

"I'm starting to have better at-bats," Zimmerman said. "I'm hitting the ball harder; I'm not just slapping it around. I'm starting to feel good. And I think if I can continue to work and doing the things I've done for the last week and getting this thing (the shoulder) stronger, I think I can kind of take off from there."

Zimmerman admitted he's still getting his shoulder back to 100 percent. He's not in any kind of significant pain, but he continues to get daily treatment on it while trying to build the strength back up.

"Just like anyone, when you hurt something in the middle of the season, you can't give it the maximum time to get it to a point where you're able to play and you know you're not going to injure it by playing," he said. "So you just let it progress and then you continue to work and work and work. It's felt better week by week. As long as I continue to treat it and do the things that I've been doing to get it stronger, I think it's just going to get better and better."

Zimmerman isn't the only one producing more power at the plate. Bryce Harper has chimed in as well, especially since manager Davey Johnson moved him back to the No. 2 spot in his lineup.

Over his last eight games, Harper is batting a hefty .419 while slugging .742 thanks to a pair of triples and a pair of homers. He's recorded at least one hit in all eight of those games (two hits in five of them) and has scored 10 times during the span.

Guess who's been hitting behind Harper in the lineup and taking advantage of those RBI opportunities? Yes, the Face of the Franchise.

Obviously, this is only an eight-game stretch, and that's far too small a sample size to suggest we're seeing a long-term shift here.

But it's clear that the production of both Harper and Zimmerman, bolstered by the fact they're hitting back-to-back near the top of the lineup, has helped ignite what had been a sluggish Nationals lineup.

And with Harper gaining valuable experience by the day, Zimmerman strengthening his shoulder and seeing the ball better each day and Michael Morse drawing ever closer to his return from the disabled list, the Nationals have to feel encouraged about the promise of even more offense to come.

Podcast: 'Baseball in the District' - Projecting Harper's USA super team

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Podcast: 'Baseball in the District' - Projecting Harper's USA super team

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DOWNLOAD THE SHOW ON iTUNES

On this week's episode of 'Baseball in the District,' we examined the Nats' resurgence in the Midwest, Bryce Harper's surprising struggles and how the suspension of Dee Gordon could affect the NL East. We also projected what Harper's idea of a U.S.A. super team for the World Baseball Classic would like.

This week's episode also featured a very special guest: D.C. Washington, the national anthem extraordinnaire that has become a fan favorite around town. How did he get his name? How did he get his start singing anthems? Does he still get nervous before them? D.C. answered those questions and more in what turned out to be a very fun interview.

You can listen to the show on ESPN 980's website or download the show on iTunes.

Nats look to win fifth straight at Kansas City Royals

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Nats look to win fifth straight at Kansas City Royals

Nats (18-7) vs. Royals (13-12) at Kauffman Stadium

After yet another impressive victory on Monday for the Nationals, who have all of a sudden found their groove against baseball's best teams, Washington aims for their fifth straight win on Tuesday night at the Kansas City Royals.

Tanner Roark (2-2, 2.03) will make his sixth start of the season. He's coming off to consecutive outings of seven scoreless innings. This is the second time Roark has faced the Royals in his career. He went 4 2/3 innings without allowing a run at Kauffman Stadium back in August of 2013.

Pitching for Kansas City will be former Nats minor leaguer Chris Young (1-4, 6.12). He and Roark were teammates on the 2013 Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs.

First pitch: 8:15 p.m.
TV: MASN2
Radio: 106.7 The Fan
Starting pitchers: Nats - Tanner Roark vs. Royals - Chris Young

NATS

CF Michael Taylor
3B Anthony Rendon
RF Bryce Harper
1B Ryan Zimmerman
2B Daniel Murphy
DH Jayson Werth
C Wilson Ramos
SS Danny Espinosa
LF Chris Heisey
(RHP Tanner Roark)

ROYALS

SS Alcides Escobar
CF Lorenzo Cain
1B Eric Hosmer
DH Kendrys Morales
LF Alex Gordon
C Salvador Perez
2B Omar Infante
3B Christian Colon
RF Jarrod Dyson
(RHP Chris Young)

Follow along with GameView here.

NL East: Phillies manager Mackanin believes his team's solid start is for real

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NL East: Phillies manager Mackanin believes his team's solid start is for real

Making sweeping judgments just one month into the Major League Baseball season is always a risky proposition. After all, we're talking about a small sample size — not even one-fifth of the 162-game slate — so it's hard to tell exactly which early-surprise teams will be out of the running down the road. 

But at 15-11, the Philadelphia Phillies so far are showing that they're not laying down just because they were widely expected to struggle in 2016.

Just ask the Nationals. The suddenly youthful Phillies' three-game sweep of the NL-East leaders last week felt like a head-scratcher for Nats fans, but it was a series that showed that Pete Mackanin's club might no longer stuck in the seemingly perpetual quagmire of a rebuild. 

"Every time we play somebody, I get the same question, but it's a good question because of course we [believe in ourselves]," Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said via MLB.com. "We played the Mets, we played them well. We just got done sweeping the Nationals and that was one of those teams where we wanted to gauge how good we were."

Of course, the Phils had already been hard a work trying to retool the roster under the direction of new President of Baseball Operations Andy MacPhail. Once known for a core featuring stars like Ryan Howard, Cole Hamels, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins, Philly's now getting major contributions from the likes of Vince Velasquez, Maikel Franco, Odubel Herrera and Aaron Nola — not exactly household names, but potential building blocks that are all under 25. 

So, can this last? Are the Phillies ahead of schedule?

Well, though they're winning, the Phillies certainly aren't exactly dominating any one area of the game. Their better-than-expected pitching staff owns a so-so 3.93 ERA, which is helping to keep this team afloat. The staff will need to keep this up, because the offense is currently ranked 29th in the majors in on-base percentage (.289) and 28th in OPS (.651), which explains why this team can have a winning record despite a minus-23 run differential. 

As the Phillies fight to show that they aren't a mirage, the one thing that does seem real for the team and its fans is that there might finally be light at the end of the tunnel. The rebuilding plan appears to be paying dividends early on, and perhaps sometime soon, this club could pose as a serious threat to the Nats and the rest of the NL East for the division crown. 

"The players should feel proud of what they've done so far this season, no matter what happens down the road," Mackanin said. "The biggest thing for me was how we reacted after going 0-4 at the beginning of the season. What have we gone, 15-6 since then? It's a good feeling."