Are the Nats bats heating up?
They're healthy, top to bottom, and they're starting to score runs in bunches. It may be happening three months later than the Nationals hoped, but at least it is happening at last.
"This is way more what we thought this lineup could do coming out of spring training," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "What everybody thought we could do."
With another early explosion Friday night, resulting in an 8-5 victory over the Padres, the Nationals continued their recent offensive upswing. They're still prone to lay the occasional egg — witness Tuesday night's shutout followed by Wednesday's 1-run performance — but in the bigger picture the Nationals are producing at the plate on a more regular basis.
They've now scored at least eight runs in four of their last six games, all wins, and they're at last feeling confident about their chances of sustaining this success for more than a day or two.
"It's not too often you get a lineup like this, where seven guys struggle at the same time," LaRoche said. "It's almost impossible. And we found a way to do it for a month-and-a-half. We're hoping this is breaking out of it. It seems like we've said that four or five times this season and fallen back into it. But the last five or six days, we've swung the bat really good."
Why the sudden uptick? Well, the return of both Bryce Harper and Wilson Ramos from extended stints on the disabled list certainly haven't hurt.
Ramos has been a one-man wrecking crew since rejoining the roster on Thursday, going 5-for-8 with eight RBI, including three more during Friday's win.
"Those two games made me feel confident, made me feel happy," said the catcher, who played in only 14 games over the season's first half after twice straining his left hamstring.
Harper actually has contributed very little since he returned from a knee injury on Monday. After homering on his first swing off the DL, the star outfielder is 0-for-18 with seven strikeouts (though he did drive in a run on Friday with a sacrifice fly).
Sensing his 20-year-old slugger could use a physical and mental break, manager Davey Johnson plans to sit Harper for the rest of the weekend.
"I just need to back off him a little bit," Johnson said, adding: "He expects a lot of himself, and I think coming back from that layoff, he's just not as relaxed as you'd like to see him. He's probably not 100 percent physically, either."
That the Nationals have been able to score runs in bunches even with Harper slumping is telling in its own right. After counting down the days for their No. 3 hitter to return from bursitis in his left knee, the Nationals are showing they don't have to rely too much on him.
They got contributions from nearly every other spot in the lineup on Friday. Leadoff man Denard Span had two hits and two RBI. LaRoche, batting fifth, drove in a run. So did Jayson Werth, who since getting dropped to the No. 6 spot has gone 6-for-7 with a walk and two RBI.
Throw in Ramos' clutch hitting from the 8-hole, and the Nationals suddenly are getting production from a variety of sources.
"I like the way the lineup is swinging the bat, really," Johnson said. "They're good at-bats, quality at-bats. That's what I've been looking for. That takes pressure off everybody in the lineup. They feel like they can stay within themselves and not try to do too much."
The beneficiary of it all Friday night was Gio Gonzalez, who despite some early issues with fastball command managed to gut out 6 2/3 innings of three-run ball on a sweltering July evening and emerge with his third straight win.
Once the victim of no run support, Gonzalez now has seen his teammates rack up 28 runs over his last three starts.
"I've never lost faith in these guys," the left-hander said. "They've been doing it since last year. You just got to keep them in the game, and if you show them signs of life, they're going to go out there and do the job."
Put it all together, and the Nationals have now won seven of their last 11 games. They're 44-42, with a chance to improve to three games over the .500 mark for the first time since May 18, having trimmed the Braves' lead in the NL East to five games.
Sure, it could all come crashing down again with another string of lackluster performances. But with a full lineup of healthy hitters at last, and production beginning to be spread around, the Nationals have legitimate reason to believe they are turning a very important corner at long last.
"I think it kind of boosts everybody else when you get guys like that back," LaRoche said. "It's more of a confidence thing, and we're slowly getting it back."