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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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Nationals' Dusty Baker thinks Washington teams are positioned to win a championship this year

Nationals' Dusty Baker thinks Washington teams are positioned to win a championship this year

Nationals manager Dusty Baker is back for a second year and feeling optimistic for his Washington team. Spring training has begun in Florida and it has Baker thinking about how the Nats can create some excitement for local sports fans.

In an interview with American University’s WAMU radio station, Baker said D.C. wants to be a "city of champions.” Furthermore, he thinks it can be pulled off before the year ends.

"I came here to win a championship and you know I would love nothing more than to bring one to Washington. Washington, I didn’t know it before I got there, but it’s had a tough time getting out of the first round in a number of sports."

He projected the Nationals to bring home the next championship for the District, but he knows they have competition of late. 

"Washington Wizards are looking pretty good. I’m pulling for them first because their season ends before ours, so I’ve been really following them. The Capitals have a good thing going. I started watching the Redskins more this year.

"You know once it gets contagious in a city and you get a positive attitude throughout the city, then it transfers to the sports teams. So we want to be known as a city of champions, before the end of the year hopefully."

Baker has a reputation for bringing out the best in his teams, especially managing star players. He managed the San Francisco Giants for ten seasons before moving on to the Chicago Cubs, a team he managed for four seasons.

He's never won a World Series, but has taken a team to Game 7. He also finished third for the 2016 National League Manager of the Year award.

So, what are Baker’s steps for the Nationals to get that ultimate prize? A simple formula, really.

"I think that we’ve got to stay healthy, number one. We’re trying to fill the holes that we need to fill, and we’ve got to play," he said. "You know last year we were very close, we were one hit away or one play away or one pitch away from going to the next round against the Cubs."

While he says he came to win Washington a championship, he's also enjoying his time in the city. 

"I love D.C. Before that, San Francisco was my favorite town; that’s my home. But I tell you, D.C. is definitely in the running," he said. "I thought San Francisco had the best seafood, but man, you guys have the best seafood I think in the world."

Thanks, Dusty!

The Nationals play their first spring training game against the New York mets on Saturday.

RELATED: NATIONALS REGULAR SEASON SCHEDULE

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Former Nationals outfielder admits to drinking vodka before MLB games

Former Nationals outfielder admits to drinking vodka before MLB games

When it comes to sports, we sometimes forget that the athletes we look up to are just normal people. Normal people who have a lot to prove to millions of people on a weekly basis. Former Nationals outfielder Rick Ankiel has discussed one of his human moments in an interview with 590 The Fan in St. Louis.

Ankiel admitted to drinking vodka during his plight as a pitcher. He referenced his first two starts of the 2001 season, in particular against the Arizona Diamondbacks where he allowed his anxiety to give in to alcohol to soothe him. In the previous postseason, he became the first pitcher since 1980 to throw five wild pitches in a single inning. 

It may have worked for a couple of games but Ankiel eventually realized it was only making matters worse.

Ankiel began playing in Majors at the age of 19, and has had a fluctuating career through six teams. All the while, he has kept a “never give up” mentality.

Why the sudden need to vent? Ankiel is getting up close and personal with his upcoming book, “The Phenomenon: Pressure, the Yips, and the Pitch that Changed my Life” which is co-written by sports writer Tim Brown. The book will be released on April 18.  

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