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.