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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.

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Wilson Ramos' ACL tear devastating news for Nationals, his future

Wilson Ramos' ACL tear devastating news for Nationals, his future

When Wilson Ramos collapsed to the ground clutching his right knee behind the plate at Nationals Park on Monday night, the Nats feared the worst as it was the same leg in which he had his ACL and MCL repaired back in 2012. On Tuesday, an MRI confirmed those fears. Ramos tore his ACL again and is not only out for the entirety of the postseason, but most of next year as well.

It happened in the final week of the regular season with the Nats preparing for the playoffs. It also happened just over a month before Ramos is set to hit free agency for the first time in his career.

There is never a good time to tear an ACL, but one would be hard pressed to find a worse time for Ramos to do it than now.

“This close to playoffs, his option year. There’s never an opportune time, but this was the most inopportune time for this to happen at this point," manager Dusty Baker said.

"It's unfortunate. Wilson was having an All-Star season, really a breakout season for himself. It's disappointing. I feel bad for him," GM Mike Rizzo said. 

Ramos, 29, earned an All-Star nod this year and for good reason. He hit .307 with 22 homers and 80 RBI and emerged as one of the best catchers in baseball.

Now his future hangs in the balance, as it will be much harder to get a lucrative long-term deal in free agency.

Rizzo said it was too soon to know how Ramos can return from re-tearing his ACL.

"He just did it yesterday. We just got the diagnosis. We're going to see what the doctors say and we'll make our assessments after that," Rizzo said.

Baker spoke earlier this year about his hopes for the Nats to re-sign Ramos. On Tuesday he was asked about Ramos' future and alluded to that idea again.

"It’s time for us to, I think as a whole, maybe to take care of him, too, because he’s taken pretty good care of us,” Baker said.

Any decision about Ramos will be made months from now. In the short-term, the Nats have a playoff run to consider as they chase a World Series. In for Ramos will be backups Jose Lobaton and Pedro Severino. Both have filled in well at times this season, but Ramos is leaving big shoes to fill.

“All of our catchers are very good catchers. It’s just that he is not only the top offensive catcher on our team, a big part of our offense, he’s one of the top offensive catchers in baseball. We’ll really miss his offense," Baker said. "I think Loby and Severino can replace (him) on defense, but it’s up to some of the other guys to offset his loss on the offensive side of the ball.”

Lobaton is dealing with a minor right ankle injury, but said he is ready to step in. He was in the starting lineup for Tuesday night's game against the Diamondbacks.

Lobaton is a good friend and longtime teammate of Ramos and spoke to him after the injury was diagnosed.

"He was sad. Anybody can be sad in that moment, in that situation. He’s been playing good all year, doing really good for the team, and now you don’t have a chance to go with the team in the playoffs," Lobaton said. "It’s really sad for me, not only for me but for the team. We’re praying for him and that he can get better soon.”

It won't be easy to move forward without Ramos, but the Nationals have no choice at this point.

[RELATED: X-ray on Bryce Harper's left thumb brings good news]

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Nats' Stephen Strasburg unlikely to be ready for first round of playoffs

Nats' Stephen Strasburg unlikely to be ready for first round of playoffs

It's not looking good for starter Stephen Strasburg to be ready to face the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Division Series next week, according to Nats general manager Mike Rizzo.

The Nats right-hander has been throwing off flat ground as part of his recovery from a right flexor mass strain. But he's running out of time with just over a week to go until Game 1.

"I think it would be kind of pushing it. I think that's fair to say," Rizzo said. With the calendar, it's unlikely that he will contribute in that first series."

Strasburg hasn't pitched since Sept. 7 when he sustained the injury in a game against the Atlanta Braves. It was his first start back off the disabled list after he dealt with right elbow soreness.

Strasburg, 28, made the All-Star team this season and is 15-4 with a 3.60 ERA in 24 starts. Without him, the Nationals will rely heavily on Max Scherzer and Tanner Roark in Games 1 and 2. Game 3 will likely go to either Gio Gonzalez or Joe Ross. The Nats have not determined whether Scherzer will pitch on short rest, but it does not sound like they are inclined to ask him to.

Manager Dusty Baker said on Tuesday it would not be his preference.

“I’d like not to do that on short rest because then what’s going to happen next round and the next round? He’s going to be on super short and then you’re risking injury. The other guys got to do their job," Baker said. "You can’t go to short rest on Max, to me, unless it’s just a dire emergency until late in the playoffs."

If the Nats are to advance to the NLCS, Game 1 would be on Oct. 15.

[RELATED: X-ray on Bryce Harper's left thumb brings good news]

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