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Nats' lineup producing at last

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Nats' lineup producing at last

ATLANTA -- For three months, the Nationals insisted they could boast a potent lineup, if only they could get several injured players back healthy and get a few slumping regulars going at the plate.

Then Ryan Zimmerman received a cortisone shot in his ailing shoulder and Michael Morse started getting his timing back after missing eight weeks with a torn lat muscle, and the rest of the Nationals started reaping the benefits that came with the resurgence of those two stalwarts.

The end result is a lineup that suddenly is capable of carrying this first-place club, even on days when the pitching staff has a few hiccups, as was the case Sunday during an 8-4 victory over the Braves.

Over the final six games of this road trip through Colorado and Atlanta, the Nationals hit a collective .345, averaged 8.5 runs and 13.6 hits per game, mashing out 24 doubles and 13 homers in the process.

Is this more of a true reflection of the lineup they envisioned all along?

"No question," manager Davey Johnson said. "I've said all along we're going in the right direction. I know the talent here. I know what we're capable of, and to see us start doing it is more like us. Nine hits a ballgame, that should be our low with the talent on this ballclub."

The Nationals recorded exactly nine hits during this series finale on another sweltering afternoon at Turner Field when the thermometer read 101 degrees at first pitch and got as high as 104 degrees during the fifth inning.

Three of those hits came from Zimmerman, all of them driving in runs. The veteran third baseman roped a two-run double in the top of the first, belted a towering home run off Tim Hudson in the fifth and then added an RBI single up the middle in the ninth for his first 4-RBI game of the season.

Owner of a .218 average when he received the cortisone shot in his shoulder one week ago, Zimmerman has 14 hits (seven of them for extra bases) and 13 RBI in eight games since. He's raised that batting average to .241 and has raised his slugging percentage 61 points (to .366).

"We're getting healthier," he said. "We're getting more consistent. The more you can throw out the same lineup, the more consistent you're going to be. For the first half of the year, we've kind of had to shuffle things around. It's not easy to score runs when different guys are in different places and you don't really get to settle into the role."

The Nationals needed the offense on Sunday after watching All-Star Gio Gonzalez labor to finish what was shaping up to be a quality start. The left-hander allowed just one run on four hits through his first five innings, but with a pitch count at 98 under those sweltering conditions, Johnson thought about turning to his bullpen at that moment.

Convinced by Gonzalez and members of the coaching staff to leave his starter in, Johnson was beating himself up later after watching Gonzalez issue two straight walks and then a three-run homer to Freddie Freeman that brought the Braves to within two runs.

"It's 120 out there," Johnson said. "I mean, I was sweating more in this one than I was yesterday. It was really hot, and he'd already thrown 98 pitches after five and I said: 'Man, go hitter by hitter with him.' And everyone was telling me how good he was throwing, and I said: 'Well, he's from South Florida, maybe he'll be all right.' And then, boom! I was killing myself."

Turns out Johnson had no need to beat up on myself, because his lineup added two key insurance runs in the ninth and his bullpen shut the door on the Atlanta lineup, with Craig Stammen, Sean Burnett and Tyler Clippard combining to toss four scoreless innings.

Thus the Nationals head home still in firm possession of the top spot in the NL East, not to mention the best record in the NL altogether.

They'll close out the season's first half this week against the Giants and Rockies, then gear up for a pennant race knowing their once-lowly offense is now capable of doing its part to support the game's best pitching staff.

"I'm excited for the second half," rookie Bryce Harper said. "Everybody is excited for the second half. For Zim to come back and Morse to come back pretty strong like they are, to get Jayson Werth back pretty soon, it's going to boost another part of the offense. Consistency is huge. And that's what you see in our whole lineup right now. Everybody has been swinging it well, and hopefully we can take it into the second half and get going."

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What will Joe Ross' role be for Nationals in playoffs vs. Dodgers?

What will Joe Ross' role be for Nationals in playoffs vs. Dodgers?

It was just a few weeks ago that Joe Ross' postseason availability was in question, and if he could return in time, whether he would pitch out of the Nationals' bullpen and or as a starter wasn't clear. Manager Dusty Baker wondered aloud if he would get his young right-hander back, even as Stephen Strasburg dealt with elbow injuries.

The progress Ross has made in a short period of time since is remarkable and after his 90-pitch outing on Thursday afternoon against the Diamondbacks, the 23-year-old looks and feels ready for the playoffs, and not just to pitch in relief, either.

"I'm hoping I get the opportunity to start, but that's up to them," Ross said. "But I'll take any opportunity I get to pitch and go out there and compete. I just want to help the team in any way I can."

Ross wasn't great on Thursday in his third start back from the disabled list. He only made it four innings, as his pitch count soared early. But in giving up just one run, he's now pitched 9 2/3 innings in three games back. During that stretch he's allowed three runs and struck out 14.

[RELATED: Wilson Ramos hopes to be back with Nationals]

It has been a process of baby steps for the Nats starter, a slow progression back from right shoulder inflammation, an injury rehab that featured a setback in late July. Now, though, he is essentially back to normal, just in time for the NL Division Series which begins next week.

"I feel good. I felt really good today. I felt really good last start. I guess it's just a point of executing pitches," he said. "There's no doubt in my mind really on whether I can go out and compete."

Baker mentioned that Ross could pitch in releif early in the NLDS against the Dodgers. That could keep him available for a start later on, if it's kept short like a normal bullpen session.

But one has to wonder if Ross has improved his case enough to pitch Game 3 of that series, given Gio Gonzalez' recent struggles. The lefty has allowed 19 earned runs in his last 23 innings going back five starts.

Regardless, Ross has certainly come a long way in just three MLB outings.

"He looks ready," second baseman Wilmer Difo said through an interpreter.

With all the negative injury news the Nationals have received in recent days, between Wilson Ramos' season-ending injury and Strasburg essentially ruled out for the NLDS, having Ross fully back in the mix is a nice change of fortune for the NL East champs.

[RELATED: Matt Belisle sounds like safe bet for Nats playoff roster]

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Wilson Ramos knows his knee injury could mean the end of Nationals' tenure

Wilson Ramos knows his knee injury could mean the end of Nationals' tenure

Wilson Ramos won't be on the field for the Washington Nationals when the team takes on the Los Angeles Dodgers in the N.L. Divisional Series next week.

The 2016 N.L. All-Star catcher will undergo surgery to repair the ACL he tore in his right knee on Monday night against the Diamondbacks

Ramos has been arguably the Nationals' most constant offensive threat this season, and had positioned himself as the team's backstop for the foreseeable future.

But the injury changed everything.

Not just because the surgery and rehab will stretch well into Spring Training, but because the 29-year-old Ramos will become a free agent at the end of the season. On top of that, a second ACL injury (He tore it in 2012 as well) means that taking the field everyday as a catcher may not be a viable option for him much longer.

"Unfortunately, this injury happened so close to the end and it may affect whether I’m able to stay with a National League team or not," Ramos told reporters prior to the Nationals' 5-3 win over the Diamondbacks on Thursday afternoon.

"But if it’s up to me, I definitely would like to keep playing for the Nationals and play as long as I can."

Ramos is a solid defensive catcher, but his biggest strength is at the plate. Being able to be a part of a lineup everyday is where he is most valuable, and that may mean playing in the American League, where he can serve as the designated hitter and fill in as catcher.

But this doesn't mean Ramos is done as a member of the Nationals, just that he's aware his time could be coming to an end.